by Zack Graham
One of the most talented American novelists of his generation, Colson Whitehead’s nine books constitute about as diverse a body of work as any living writer’s. His settings include a post-apocalyptic zombie attack, an American slave plantation in the 1700s, the mid-’80s Hampton’s, and the modern World Poker Tour. He is the recipient of nearly every serious literary award and/or honor known to mankind, and his essays and stories have appeared in every leading English-language newspaper and magazine. The man is a national treasure.
Today we are fortunate to receive his most recent blessing: The Nickel Boys, a novel about a reform school based on the Arthur Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which was the site of the torture and murder of young black boys, many of whose bodies were buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.
The novel centers around Elwood Curtis, a bright, honest, hard-working black boy coming of age in Tallahassee during the early 1960s. Elwood accepts a ride home from an old friend one afternoon, and when the police pull the car over and discover it to be stolen, Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy, where he encounters punishments, tortures, and treatment not too far removed from that which his enslaved ancestors experienced hundreds of years before.
Whitehead approaches Nickel Boys with a stylistic dryness whose overtone mimics the books and magazine articles he read researching the novel. The distance of Whitehead’s narrative tone rivals the dryness of even his most distantly told novels, an approach that carries with it positives and negatives. At the outset, Whitehead’s prose is so dry that one wonders if they are reading a book of nonfiction despite the fact that it carries the word “novel” on its cover. Many of the thoroughly researched locations, descriptions, and imagined similes ring hollow in the novel’s first section, as Whitehead establishes the historical context for the book and paints a somewhat vivid portrait of the early years of the Civil Rights Movement and the injustices of the Jim Crow South through the protagonist Elwood’s eyes.
Whitehead’s emotionless prose begins to shine, however, when we enter the realm of Nickel. He details racist crimes against humanity with the same objective deliberateness he used to describe Elwood’s job at a local tobacco shop, which makes these horrors all the more gut-wrenching to witness. Accounts of black boys’ screams being covered in the dark of night by the ambient noise made by industrial fans, for example, are unforgettable. And as Elwood nears Nickel’s darkest secrets, the novel’s dry tone becomes a lens through which readers can observe the wretched evils of American racism and the genocide of young black boys up close.
The novel really hits its stride, however, when the distant narrator dissolves and Whitehead breaks into more emotional, voice-driven prose, akin to the narration in his National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Underground Railroad. The outset of Chapter 16 of The Nickel Boys, for example:
“Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom. Take him away from his family, whip him until all he remembers is the whip, chain him up so all he knows is chains. A term in an iron sweatbox, cooking his brains in the sun, had a way of bringing a buck around, and so did a dark cell, a room aloft in darkness, outside time.”
Most of this phenomenal prose surfaces during the novel’s third section, which coincidentally contains the book’s strongest structural scaffolding. Whitehead flashes forward at the outset of Part III: Elwood is living with his girlfriend in New York City in the mid-1970s, working a job and earning his GED. The novel’s tension then shifts, and we learn about what happened to Elwood between where we left him at Nickel and New York in chapters that oscillate between the two timelines. The trick works wonders, and the novel finishes as a page-turner.
In the end, The Nickel Boys, like The Underground Railroad, is the narrative of a black American person in America fleeing the South for the North, where they can live a marginally more humane existence. In many ways, The Nickel Boys feels like a spiritual sequel to The Underground Railroad. It reminds us that the evils of slavery, which faced Railroad’s protagonists Cora and Cesar, are not at all distant from the reform school evils that faced Elwood, his friend Turner, and the other boys at Nickel. These are the same forces that manifest today in the school-to-prison pipeline, the rampant police murder of innocent African-Americans, and other modern forms of systemic subjugation and disenfranchisement. One only hopes Whitehead continues to use his prodigious talents to document these national horrors. Societies cannot grow, change, or reconcile without artworks like his.
Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, Newsday, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.