Colson Whitehead is an American literary lion. Scion of a wealthy New York family, educated in a private school and an elite university, he lives and works in Manhattan. He has written seven novels, all of them well-received, a number of them prize-winners, including America’s National Book Award.
He received a MacArthur Fellowship, awarded to scientists, artists, and philosophers as “an investment in originality, insight and potential”. It is known as “The Genius Grant”.
His work has garnered the Pulitzer Prize twice, one of only four writers to pull that off. The Underground Railway (2016) won it, as did his current novel The Nickel Boys (2020). Barack Obama described it as “terrific”. It also won The Orwell Prize for Fiction, for its achievement in making “political writing into an art”.
It’s hard not to be daunted by the prospect of reading one of his novels. What happens if I don’t like it? I struggled with the early chapters of The Nickel Boys. I felt I’d read it before. It reminded me of early chapters in Jane Eyre, when the child is damned to a regime of abuse in a reform school created and run by authority figures who use physical violence and the violence of neglect as a chastisement for the child’s own good. It also reminded me of accounts of the experiences of boys in the infamous industrial schools in Ireland. A report by The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in Ireland (2009) concluded that children in the schools were the victims of systematic and sustained physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
The Nickel Boys is a fictional account of such abuse, based on a real school in Florida, in the early 1960s, as the clamour for civil rights rises across the USA, led by the sonorous and uplifting voice of Martin Luther King.
… we must walk the streets of life everyday and with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.
Hearing such poetic rhetoric on an LP owned by his grandmother, Elwood Curtis, the central character, is infused with an aspiration for equality and justice. It fires him with hope. His subsequent treatment at The Nickel hoses down that hope. These two aspects of the African American experience have been cited by Whitehead as the well-spring of the novel, presented to vivid effect in the doubling of the principal characters, Elwood Curtis and Jack Turner, another inmate.
If slavery is central to the history of America, the abuse, the violence, the sexual predations and the violations visited on youngsters in reform schools such as The Nickel is critical. It is revealed by and denounced in the searing light of Colson Whitehead’s art. His achievement is to create literature from historical vileness that continues today.
The novel draws to a close with a telling scene where a Black boy is shot down by a White figure of authority. The brutal action and the impunity of the shooter echo down the decades to the killings of Black children by police officers today.
We first meet Elwood, a gentle, serious boy, raised by his grandmother as a civil and honest citizen, in the confines of the segregated and discriminatory society of Tallahassee, in the Florida Panhandle. Intending to cycle to Melvin Griggs Technical, where he plans to study English, broken links on his bicycle chain start his journey to The Nickel. He takes a lift in a car which is later pulled over by a White police officer.
First thing I thought when they said to keep an eye out for a Plymouth. Only a nigger’d steal that.
The gross ill-treatment meted out to the boys in The Nickel includes labouring (creating income and profit for corrupt officials), sadistic beatings, rape and other sexual abuses. Elwood gets his share on a daily basis. He is sent to the notorious flogging room, where two iron rings, bolted to the wall, hold him down while sadists, good upstanding members of their community, flay him. Elwood survives, becoming more wily. He remains biddable and civil. His intelligence gets him off-site duties, where he befriends Jack Turner.
The story gathered traction when Elwood and Jack gained agency. Elwood shifts from victim to survivor. And that has consequences. His civility persists. It inspires Jack Turner and marks him for life, a life he makes as a legacy to his friend.
The form of the novel is episodic, but not picaresque. Elwood is not a rogue, likeable or otherwise. There are numerous and varied characters, some of whom I would like to have seen developed, such a Denise and Millie. Millie wonders at the immense effort white people put into grinding us (them) down.
The novel bounds forward by leaps in location, circumstances and time, without ever confusing the reader. The story is told in a consistent ‘now’, whether in the 1960s or the 2010s, asserting that these matters are both historical and current. I found the adult, 2010s, sections the most gripping as the twinned character of Elwood/Turner drives forward. But the past never goes away and an archaeological dig draws him back to The Nickel.
The book is short, deft and deep. Many chapters work as stand-alone short stories: chapter13, the marathon, on the differing legacies lived by ex-inmates, is poignant; chapter 15, date night, is a love story.
The book will stay with me. An image of Elwood’s civility, while he and Turner are on off-site duties, is particularly affecting. He holds open the door of an ice-cream parlour for a white woman pushing a pram. Servility and civility blunder into each other.
There’s no need to be daunted by reading Colson Whitehead’s powerful work. There’s more coming, with a new novel, Harlem Shuffle, set for publication later in 2021. A tv series adaptation of The Underground Railway, directed by Barry Jenkins, is underway. Could the story of the error at the 2017 Oscars when the Best Film Award was wrongly announced for La La Land and then corrected to Jenkins’ film Moonlight stand as a moment in the occluding of African American history?
The historic basis of the continuing incarceration of African Americans, right up to the present is noted in the opening of Chapter 16.
Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom.
Fathers to sons. Fathers to sons. Fathers to sons. In the words of Steve Earle’s marvellous song, Ellis Unit One.
So I hired on at the prison
Guess I always knew I would
Just like my dad and both my uncles done
This passing on of brutal incarceration, including death penalties without impunity, inside and outside of jails, must end. The Nickel Boys makes that call brilliantly.
Rather than being daunted, I was enhanced.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Recommended.