Following Colson Whitehead’s critically acclaimed 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, expectations were set very high for the author’s next work. Fortunately, Whitehead delivers in his searing new novel, The Nickel Boys (Doubleday).
Set during the advent of the Civil Rights movement, The Nickel Boys centers on Elwood Curtis, an up-and-coming African American boy who hitchhikes his way into a stolen car and finds himself sentenced to a juvenile reform school. Based on the true story of a school in Jim Crow Florida, Nickel Academy is the site of sadistic torture and deprivation for boys ages five to eighteen. In the sorriest cases, students disappear “out back.” Tragically, many of the boys were sent there for only minor slip-ups; as the narrator wryly observes, “All the violent offenders… were on staff.”
Whitehead’s poetic, compressed language pulls us into this harrowing tale. For example, he offers dagger-sharp descriptions of the characters in this sprawling cast. Whitehead calls a maintenance worker “a man of secret menace who stored violence like a battery.” Writing about a Nickel teacher, Whitehead observes, “He had a way of suddenly appearing in front of you, like a puddle or a pothole, and you learned that his big meaty hands were faster than you’d think, pincering shoulder blades, noosing a skinny neck.”
Whitehead also creates a heartbreaking protagonist. As Elwood serves his time, he cherishes memories of his idol, Martin Luther King, Jr. and clings to the assertion that he must love even his jailer. He believes his hard work will enable him to graduate from Nickel in record time. The earnest Elwood soon meets his foil in another student, Turner, who embodies a scrappier disposition. As the narrator says, “The first thing [Elwood] noticed was the notch in the boy’s left ear, like an alley cat that had been in scrapes… this boy bobbed in his own pocket of calm… Like a tree trunk that falls across a creek—it doesn’t belong there and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”
The two boys’ paths intersect at random, such as when Elwood recovers from a vicious beating at the hands of the staff after defending a younger boy. He finds himself in the infirmary with Turner, who’s forcing himself to vomit by eating powdered soap—thereby buying a chance to sleep. Turner counsels Elwood: in order to get out of Nickel, “…you got to see how people act, and then you figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” Although he remains unwavering in his commitment to hard work as a means of transcendence, Elwood begrudgingly realizes, “Violence is the only lever big enough to turn the world.”
Soon, the boys discover a smidge of freedom when they’re assigned to community service. Whitehead writes, “Elwood grabbed everything he saw in the free world to assemble in his mind later.” Again, Whitehead emphasizes Elwood’s trusting, compliant nature—which, tragically, we come to understand is his Achilles heel. Whitehead writes, “…white men had always noticed [Elwood’s] industrious nature. The news brightened his mood.” Later, Whitehead says, “In keeping his head down… he fooled himself that he had prevailed… In fact, he had been ruined… after years of oppression, [he had] adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as [his] only bed.”
Playing by the rules will eventually grind down a striver like Elwood, Whitehead argues. Should he, by some stroke of luck, escape from Nickel, Elwood would nevertheless find himself trapped within the larger, institutional labyrinth of racism. Indeed, throughout the book, Whitehead parses America’s historical and continuing racial hypocrisy. For example, speaking of white flight to the escape the growing post-war urban population, Whitehead writes, “…it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.”
Eventually, as the novel reaches its peak, Elwood the optimist and Turner the schemer stumble upon a dangerous opportunity. Just as we readers think the novel is winding down, Whitehead builds a late, stunning plot twist that dislodges our understanding of these characters’ fates. The conclusion to Whitehead’s latest triumph is both inevitable and devastating, leaving us reeling.
The Nickel Boys will be available for purchase on July 16.
About Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. He has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.