Books

'The Nickel Boys' Continues Colson Whitehead's Inquiry into American Racism

Colson Whiteheads' The Nickle Boys fictionalizes the true story of a Florida prison for boys in the 1960s, further exploring America's furtive legacy of racist violence.

The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead

Doubleday

Jul 2019

Other

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.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.