Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

“Even in death the boys were trouble.

The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy acre of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump…The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.”

Attention to historical fiction has increased exponentially over recent years, tangling itself with mystery and romance genres to serve popular interest in literature that plays with historical fact through fiction. While one can find types of historical literature to serve almost any taste – from the fantastical magical realism of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to the sweeping exploration of 1960s Jamaica in Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings – it is increasingly within the realm of literature transcending genre that one can find the very best of what fiction has to offer. Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, stands as one of the most provocative examples of historical fiction that evades standard labels. Casting off the traditional limitations of historical fact, Whitehead uses the novel to play with both timelines and the invocation of magical realism to rewrite a narrative of slavery and freedom in 1800s America. Given the critical and popular acclaim that the novel received, it is unsurprising that Whitehead’s follow-up novel, The Nickel Boys, would serve as one of 2019’s most anticipated releases. Moving us into the era of civil rights and away from the cross-genre exploration that has characterised Whitehead’s previous works, The Nickel Boys is a vital call for attention to history’s darkest shadows and our own selective ignorance.

Taking up the legacy left by the history described in The Underground RailroadThe Nickel Boys turns its unflinching attention to the story of the Nickel Academy, a Florida reform school for wayward boys. Based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, The Nickel Boys contends with the inmates’ experiences of physical and sexual abuse, conducted under the guise of the school’s attention to administering the “physical, intellectual, and moral training” of which these boys are in need. Told through the experiences of Elwood Curtis, a black teenager with a love for the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., the reader is a first-hand witness to the brutalities inflicted by both the school’s violent overseers and the negligence of a state administration unwilling to protect its victims. It is a picture of voicelessness and racism that culminates in the novel’s present-day accounting of morbid discoveries on the defunct school’s land. As the unmarked graves of dead youths are uncovered, it is clear that a life marred by the physical and mental scars of time spent at the Nickel Academy was the best for which its inmates could hope.

“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 of time.

After the Civil War, when a five-dollar fine for a Jim Crow charge – vagrancy, changing employers without permission, ‘bumptious contact’, what have you – swept black men and women up into the maw of debt labor, the white sons remembered the family lore. Dug pits, forged bars, forbid the nourishing face of the sun. The Florida Industrial School for Boys wasn’t in operation six months before they converted the third-floor storage closets into solitary confinement. One of the handymen went dorm by dorm, screwing in bolts: there. The dark cells remained in use even after two locked-up boys died in the fire of ’21. The sons held the old ways close.”

That The Nickel Boys could earn Colson Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is a speculation with substantial merit. Although a departure from the reality-bending ingenuity that gave The Underground Railroad much of its painful originality, The Nickel Boys retains all of Whitehead’s ability to illuminate the most foreboding corners of Western history. Reminiscent of the attention recently drawn to the atrocities of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, crimes committed on the path to the ‘reformation’ of wayward youth have been a site of growing interest to academics and creatives over recent years. Done correctly, literature has a peculiar potential to evocate suffering and connect its audience with the voices of those silenced by a system not yet equipped – or willing – to reckon with its own complicity in abuse. That it takes the discovery of mass graves – as was the case with both the Magdalene Laundries and the Dozier School of which Whitehead writes – to draw popular attention to atrocities of which victims have been speaking for years is a sound condemnation of the sensationalism that we require in order to care.

In the case of The Nickel Boys, however, such sensationalism is used to significant narrative advantage. Beginning with the graves, Whitehead sets the novel up as both a journey into the personal history of the Nickel Academy and an unravelling of the unending consequences of abuse for the school’s victims. While society preoccupies itself with the necessity of attention to the system’s dead victims – the existence of whom state officials continue to perceive as an incredible inconvenience – the living survivors are forced to play out their experiences through failed relationships, continuous prison sentences, and cycles of addiction. Where most of the novel’s focus is given to the experiences of Elwood and his fellow Nickel Academy inmates during their sentences, the reader is never permitted to stray far from the sense of lasting gravity that extends far beyond the limits of time served at the school. While the abuses themselves are described with an unflinching attention to stomach-churning detail, it is Whitehead’s expert sense of history’s boundlessness that makes his work so astonishingly human.

“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.

They came at one a.m. but woke few, because it was hard to sleep when you knew they were coming, even if they weren’t coming for you. The boys heard the cars grind the gravel outside, the doors open, the thumping up the stairs. The hearing was seeing, too, in bright strokes across the mind’s canvas. The men’s flashlights danced. They knew where their beds were – the bunks were only two feet apart, and after occasions when they grabbed the wrong ones, now they made sure beforehand. They took Lonnie and Big Mike, they took Corey, and they got Elwood, too.”

The Nickel Boys is a story that needed to be told – a narrative to which Whitehead is eminently suited. Where The Underground Railroad permitted the author to explore the meaning of freedom in a physical sense – under the boundaries imposed by different ideas about the ‘advancement’ of former slaves – The Nickel Boys studies freedom and race as part of a continued history, in an era when civil rights spoke of breaking cycles. In many ways, Elwood’s story at the Nickel Academy is that of Cora had she been unable to make her escape attempt from the plantation of The Underground Railroad. Although not consigned to a lifetime of forced servitude, Elwood is imprisoned, abused, and threatened into various forms of physical labour. That his crime was simply one of accepting assistance from a man in a stolen vehicle adds layers to the knowledge that, in many respects, The Nickel Boys is a necessary successor to the history of racism in The Underground Railroad. Much as the school’s administrators have willingly assumed the “brutal heirloom” of racism’s oversight, so too have its young victims forcibly shouldered a systematically-enforced history of violent inequality. The Nickel Boys offers an unwavering and entirely necessary study of violence and its inherited circuity.

The past few years have been populated with vital literary voices and debuts. From Tommy Orange’s breathless consideration of Native American identity and life in modern day America – There There – to Richard Powers’ timely, Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental call-to-arms – The Overstory – publishers have their fingers on the pulse of literature’s power to transform popular conceptions of contemporary issues. In the silences of history, fiction has an incredible ability to fill the gaps. The Nickel Boys is an essential example of everything that literature can do when written at the very limits of its humanistic potential. In Whitehead, America has an author unafraid to play with genre while in search of history’s untapped messages – as with both The Underground Railroad and The Intuitionist. Most impressively, however, Whitehead is willing to lend his significant narrative skill to a fearless pursuit of the country’s shuttered past. To call Whitehead’s work necessary seems to simultaneously undersell its literary merit, whilst recognising the timeliness of literature that forces popular attention upon a continued history of oppression and systemic violence. The Nickel Boys is, in this respect, a book that defies distillation into a single selling point or tag-line. It is undoubtedly, however, a novel that further cements Whitehead’s place as one of the world’s most profound and resolute literary voices.

the nickel boys


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