The Nickel Boys; By Colson Whitehead; Penguin Random House LLC, 2019; 210 pages.
Colson Whitehead doesn’t waste words. Among novelists today, he’s the ultimate economist in that department. Every short sentence serves a purpose. His stories unfold like a well-worn document that contains untold secrets tucked away in the corner of an old nightstand.
He’s also on the short list of America’s most compelling writers and storytellers working today. His seventh novel, “The Underground Railroad” for which he won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, was a revelation — a brilliant allegory about slavery in the American South. It captured the brutality, danger, frustrations and hopelessness of men and women bonded into slavery who are looking for any avenue to a better life — any life outside of a plantation. Whitehead’s writing is so earnest and direct it almost seems plausible that a vast railroad track buried deep in the ground existed to ferry runaway slaves by locomotive North to freedom. It was narrative metaphor creatively turned into intriguing reality.
Similar magic is at work in Whitehead’s new novel, “The Nickel Boys.” His literary sleight of hand and penchant for nuanced misdirection keeps readers guessing until the end. That isn’t easy in a book ostensibly set in an early 1960s youth detention facility in Florida where corruption is rampant and the threat of horrifying violence, rape or death always nearby. Whitehead was inspired to write the book by real events at the Dozier School for Boys, which operated in the Florida panhandle and was uncovered by the Tampa Bay Times. A few items are taken directly from events there. The story itself could have evolved into the standard prison abuse narrative. But in Whitehead’s hands the multi-layered story of fictional Nickel Academy reveals itself over a nearly 60-year period — all in 210 taut pages. And each time a reader feels certain of what will happen next, Whitehead pulls the magician’s handkerchief away to reveal something wholly unexpected.
The center of the story is Elwood Curtis, a teenager living in the African-American community of Frenchtown in Tallahassee, Florida with his grandmother after his mother and father abandoned him there to move to California. Elwood is just beginning to learn about social justice and the Civil Rights movement through the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He’s a gifted student who impresses his teachers. He’s a diligent worker who earns the trust of his white bosses in part-time jobs. Elwood dreams of going to college after graduating from high school. One of his teachers creates an opportunity for Elwood to take preliminary college-level courses at local college that necessitates a bus ride for transportation. Eager to get to his classes faster, Elwood makes a bad life decision, opting to hitchhike rather than take the bus across town.
His life would never be the same again.
Unknown to Elwood, he hitches a ride with a man driving a stolen car. From there the so-called justice system of the Jim Crow South sweeps an innocent teenager previously on a path to higher education into a barbaric hellscape known as The Nickel Academy. Dishonesty, sadism and brutality are the predominant themes in an institution in cahoots with the nearby community and state officials. White and black teens are housed separately but both face torture or extreme beatings at the hands of the guards and administrators for sometimes minor transgressions. The same inequities that exist outside the reformatory’s gates for white and black teens exist inside. But life is potentially dangerous for all. None of the “Nickel Boys” leaves without deep scars — that is if they leave at all.
Whitehead tells the story of Elwood and those he befriends in Nickel Academy through a series of episodes that reveal just what coping mechanisms are required to exist under such inhumane conditions. We also learn how this impacts the lives of the teenagers as they grow to manhood with the reformatory far behind them.
To reveal more would eliminate too many surprises contained in Whitehead’s almost perfect novel. it’s a jarring book and a disturbing one that reminds once again of how one injustice can have major consequences and what human beings are capable of unchecked..