Few novelists have as big a claim to the throne of contemporary fiction as Colson Whitehead. His success has been seemingly unparalleled over the last few years, but he’s been quietly influential as a novelist of impressive versatility for two decades. In the first act of his career, he wrote a handful of clever novels that showed off an impressive acuity for adapting and modernizing different genres. His 1999 debut, The Intuitionist, is a work of speculative fiction that largely confines its plot to the insides of elevators. Zone One (2011) is a zombie novel, reappropriating the well-trod genre to tell a modern story of survival. But it wasn’t until 2016’s The Underground Railroad that he won a Pulitzer and became a household name. The award, and the book’s tremendous success, cemented Whitehead as one of fiction’s most cunning innovators, and his follow-up has been fervently awaited.
The Nickel Boys, his sixth novel, works much in the same vein as The Underground Railroad, excavating the history of American racism but bringing the narrative forward to the 1960s — the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, race riots, and Jim Crow. In Whitehead’s novel, it’s also a fruitful time for the Nickel Academy, a loosely fictionalized version of the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school that operated in Marianna, Florida from 1900 to 2011.
The protagonist is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager living with his grandmother in Tallahassee. Elwood is a good student and is destined for a life better than the one prescribed by his poor neighborhood, and in between working at the local deli and listening obsessively to a recording of “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill“, he finds purpose among the righteous crowds of local race riots. His grandmother, Harriet, disapproves of the protests, but Elwood discreetly joins their ranks. Nevertheless, Elwood’s good behavior at school helps him get accepted to college.
On his way to school, though, he catches a ride from the wrong car. The car it stopped by the police, and before he knows it Elwood is en route to Nickel instead of university. In a split second, the course of his life is altered. Ironically, it’s not his rioting that got him in trouble, but the simple fact of being black in broad daylight. Elwood’s college enrollment is deferred and his grandmother is devastated, and soon his promising future gives way to the strict, violent realities of life at Nickel.
On first sight, Nickel’s grounds aren’t as foreboding as Elwood imagined:
“He expected tall stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green dotted with two- and three-story buildings of red brick… It was the nicest-looking property Elwood had ever seen—a real school, a good one, not the forbidding reformatory he’d conjured the last few weeks.”
But the illusion is quickly shattered. Elwood is separated from the white kids and thrown into a dormitory with the other black kids. He meets Turner, an enigmatic and wise kid his age and quickly learns the ways of the school. In theory, good behavior gets kids promotions through Nickel’s ranks, and those who make it to the top are set free. Elwood naïvely chooses to believe in this system despite Turner’s cynical protests, hoping that his knack for obedience can get him back on track toward the life he should be living. But one day, after attempting to break up a fight, he’s punished by being whipped until he passes out. He spends the next couple of weeks in the school’s hospital recuperating, considering the gravity of the torture he just endured and realizing, for the first time, that the world is cruelly and roundly stacked against him.
Nickel Boys is a short novel at just over 200 pages, but its quick developments are strengthened by Whitehead’s unflinching, matter-of-fact language, which refuses to make a show of racist violence without sparing any of the necessary details. Although it takes place in a different time period and adheres more closely to unadorned realism, the book is a successor of sorts to The Underground Railroad. The two books seem to be part of the same project — that of resurrecting the traditional slave narrative for modern audiences.
Cora, the previous book’s protagonist, is a Georgia slave who runs away on a literalized railroad to greener pastures in the north, but in many ways Elwood is no less a slave. Living decades after Cora’s time, he’s born into tentative freedoms that she risks her life for, and yet his tenure at Nickel proves equally vicious, if not even more sneakily cruel, than her travails at the plantation. “How much has truly changed over the years?” Whitehead seems to be asking, and we know, from the vantage point of the 21st century, exactly what the answer is.
Violence is, naturally, an important factor in Nickel’s operations, but not all of it comes in the form of immediate punishment. The school also hosts an annual boxing tournament between the white and black students, and the kids themselves designate the fighter they want to represent them. By the time of Elwood’s enrollment, the black team has won the fight for 15 years straight, and their chosen fighter, Griff, is a notorious bully. One day, Turner overhears Griff talking to Spencer and realizes that the director wants him to throw the fight, “or else they’d take him out back.” When the fight comes, Griff gives it his all anyway, either out of stupidity or pride, and wins. He’s never seen again.
The boxing match is one of The Nickel Boys‘ most inspired chapters, in large part because it so perfectly illustrates the cunning racism at the center of the work. It’s no secret to the black students that the white students are treated better, but the rigged match signifies a deeper unfairness that many of the kids, especially Elwood, must confront within themselves. In the story’s second half, time skips ahead to the late 20th century and to present day, where Elwood now lives and owns a business in New York City. His life has vastly improved, but the scars remain, and a final twist reveals a truth that changes our perception of the work as a whole.
Whitehead’s work has always been distinctly American because of how it holds the nation’s atrocities unsparingly up to the light. The Nickel Boys is no different, and in fact may be the novelist’s most straightforward look at institutionalized racism yet. For a writer with an evident gift for genre flourishes, the new novel relies very little on special tricks, instead presenting a very real moment in history for what it is. For that, Elwood, Turner and the others are all the more real, and the violence they face is especially potent. In the third decade of his career, Whitehead is still finding new ways to innovate.