(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Part thriller, part social commentary, part morality study, Hunting in Harlem is at heart a hard-edged satirical and cautionary tale about the potential dangers of urban renewal and gentrification from an African American perspective. Under the aegis of former congressman and parole officer Cyrus Marks, three former convicts—Bobby, Snowden, and Horus—have been handpicked as interns for Second Chance, a program run by Horizon Realty. This competitive one-year program ostensibly helps rebuild men’s lives as they help restore the architecturally grand brownstones of Harlem, particularly those in the Mount Morris Historic District, to their former glory. The ultimate goal, the men are told, is to create a second cultural renaissance like that experienced in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when African American literature, art, and music flourished in Harlem. Toward this end, the former convicts are instructed to clean out vacated premises and assist new buyers in moving into renovated homes. The intern who most impresses management as a potential real estate agent will not only be given his own brownstone but also be chosen to oversee Second Chance in the future.

As the three men go about their duties, Snowden notices a sinister aspect of the renaissance plan. A key component of the program is replacing “undesirables”—drug dealers, gang members, welfare recipients, pimps, pedophiles, and other such “lowlifes”—with upscale, professional people. Coincidentally, the lowlifes of Harlem seem to be falling victim to fatal accidents in numbers that defy actuarial tables. With a tragic plunge down a staircase or a hit-and-run accident, the resident of a choice property is suddenly eliminated, and the property becomes available for purchase, remodeling, and resale at enormous profits. Snowden mentions this strange phenomenon to reporter Piper Goines, with whom he has a brief affair after moving her into a new residence, and she writes an article about it for her local rag of a newspaper, though it initially receives little attention.

Over time, the three former convicts are called upon to take a more active role in removing specific targets. How each Second Chance recruit reacts to this troubling development forms the core of Hunting in Harlem, giving the novel considerable depth, complexity, and resonance.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bush, Vanessa. Review of Hunting in Harlem, by Mat Johnson. Booklist 99, no. 17 (May 1, 2003): 1579. This starred review praises the author for his keen insight into contemporary issues, for his realistic characters and tense plot, and for his sense of humor.

Higgins, Nathan Irvin. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. This study of the original Harlem Renaissance provides a cultural backdrop and references many of the early figures mentioned in Johnson’s novel.

Kirkus Reviews. Review of Hunting in Harlem, by Mat Johnson. 71, no. 4 (February 15, 2003): 257. Notes the author’s skillful use of Harlem history but criticizes an unfocused narrative and credulity-straining plot line.

Scruggs, Charles. Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the African American Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Study of the black urban experience as a driving force behind the modern African American novel.