The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
Buzz: Follow up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning The Underground Railroad.
Light vs Dark, Good vs Evil, Hope vs Despair. It’s rare to meet such absolutes in modern fiction, but The Nickel Boys deals in extremes. It opens with two contrasting images. A little boy gets the “best gift of his life on Christmas day 1962.” A record that never leaves the turntable, gaining scratches, pops and crackles as marks of devotion: Martin Luther King at Zion Hill. An innocent young Elwood Curtis listens with love, and he internalises the optimism and idealism, the grit and stoicism: "Throw us in jail and we will still love you… But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
But just before we meet Elwood, there is a prologue, with a less than optimistic tone. Set in the present day, we learn of a secret graveyard at the site of a former ‘correctional’ school for boys: The Nickel Academy. Archaeology students are clearing the area for property developers, in exchange for field credits, and stumble upon the graves. Bones are fractured, “cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot.” The scene is grim, cynical, depressing, bleak.
During the course of The Nickel Boys we get to know both Elwood and The Nickel Academy better, but neither stray far from their initial introduction. Elwood is industrious, moral and, as his friend Turner describes him: “sturdy.” He clings to Martin Luther King Jnr’s teachings and wrestles with what they ask of him, but his idealism remains rooted deep; his integrity is not compromised. The Nickel Academy is as bleak and horrifying as the excavation suggests; a place of misery, deprivation and brutal violence. The supervisors there have no redeeming plot lines or characteristics. There are no slivers of forgiveness for their actions or decisions. It’s good vs bad, with no mud in the water.
A wrong-place-wrong-time decision means Elwood is sentenced to time in the Academy, and it’s the resulting friction between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair that powers the novel. Elwood striving to wear his oppressors down, as Martin Luther King suggested, with his ‘capacity to suffer;’ the supervisors at Nickel simply wearing all their charges down, the better to exploit and control them. Elwood’s idealism is subject to a constant grinding pressure. Like the needle on the over-played record; the story we hear playing out is compelling enough by itself, but the added crackle, pop and hiss add a layer of tension that make the novel sing.
This is a quietly powerful book. Understated in the best possible way. After the fearsome brutality and steam punk virtuosity of Colson Whitehead’s last novel — the Pulitzer and National Book Award winning The Underground Railroad — this has a gentler, more philosophical tone. It could almost be described as light; its easy readability belying its political and emotional content. It gives the impression of telling things as they were, laying them bare in all their quiet, affecting sadness. That constant grinding friction between hope and despair is a long, quiet game, after all.
Elwood himself would not approve, perhaps. He likes to make his protests known, and rejects his Grandmother Harriet’s strict adherence to not “acting above your station,” keeping your head down with quiet sadness. She was desperate, instead, to keep him alive. Her father died in jail after an arrest for the Jim Crow offence of “bumptious contact,” her husband was killed breaking up a scuffle between a black dishwasher and three white men, her daughter disappeared with a husband who couldn’t re-adjust back to life in an unforgiving civilian world after the relative equality of the armed forces. As Elwood learns to survive in Nickel, he realises he’s become more like how he’d seen his Grandmother “in less kind moments… He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.” And so his resistance, and the friction, step back up.
Towards the middle of The Nickel Boys the timeline splits, between the characters as children and then later as adults in a modern day narrative, after the students exhume the bones. It’s a relief to be taken out of the claustrophobia of the Florida detention centre and into modern New York. For a fleeting moment in this thread we get to look back on the silent battle of Elwood’s childhood through adult eyes. But he’s frustrated when a loved one can’t see the “big picture.” To him, the “big picture” is just his years at Nickel. For all the years he’s lived since, the only picture he can really see is whether idealism survived, or whether it was crushed, in that dreadful place. To her, it’s “the immense exertion white people put into grinding them down,” — she forgot how bad it used to be, then the story of Nickel reminded her: “It all returned in a rush, set off by tiny things, like standing on a corner trying to hail a cab … [and] by the big things, a drive through a blighted neighborhood snuffed out by that same immense exertion, or another boy shot dead by a cop.”
An adult Elwood can’t zoom out to see what she sees, that under the endless push and pull, the quiet, sad survival in the face of unendurable inequality and tragedy lives on. As to the coin flip of optimism vs pessimism, hope vs despair? After a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking finale, Colson Whitehead closes the final pages of the book with one very clear image, and he might not land the coin on the side you expect.
Published: 1st August 2019, Fleet.