If you read “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s phenomenal novel about a runaway slave, you remember that disorienting moment when a subterranean locomotive rolls into view. It was an element of imaginative whimsy that might have sounded silly in such a chilling story about human bondage. But it worked spectacularly. In fact, that train running through tunnels deep below ground was just the first of several surreal elements insinuated into this work of historical fiction that drew on horrors from centuries of America’s troubled past. And with a voice as magically mercurial as its plot, “The Underground Railroad” won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize and, most important, Oprah’s blessing.
Whitehead’s new novel, impossibly overhyped because of the success of “The Underground Railroad,” is in many ways a continuation of his reassessment of African American history. But “The Nickel Boys” is no mere sequel. Despite its focus on a subsequent chapter of black experience, it’s a surprisingly different kind of novel. The linguistic antics that have long dazzled Whitehead’s readers have been set aside here for a style that feels restrained and transparent. And the plot of “The Nickel Boys” tolerates no fissures in the fabric of ordinary reality; no surreal intrusions complicate the grim progress of this story. That groundedness in the soil of natural life is, perhaps, an implicit admission that the treatment of African Americans has been so bizarre and grotesque that fantastical enhancements are unnecessary.
“The Nickel Boys” draws its inspiration from incidents of abuse at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed reformatory school in Florida that operated for more than a century. Though the facility opened with apparently good intentions to bring a more enlightened approach to the treatment of troubled and orphaned youngsters, it devolved into an underworld of torture, rape and murder. Just last month, Florida officials announced plans to search the campus for more bodies hidden in unmarked graves.
Whitehead’s novel opens with a similar announcement about a state investigation into crimes once committed at a shuttered reformatory school called Nickel Academy. Archaeology students surveying the old campus have discovered an unmarked grave that had been “neatly erased from history.” The exhumed bodies exhibit “cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot.” Attention from the national press is likely to postpone a real-estate development of the land. “Even in death,” the narrator notes, “the boys were trouble.”
Whitehead returns to that contemporary storyline periodically throughout “The Nickel Boys,” but his real interest lies in what happened back in the 1960s. The hero of the novel is Elwood Curtis, a painfully earnest African American teenager. He’s smart, hardworking and self-righteous enough to impress his elders and irritate his friends. He considers a record album of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches the best gift he has ever received. He reads about protests and bus boycotts in Life magazine, and he dreams of one day joining those brave witnesses in the civil-rights cause. He knows the battle will be hard, but he’s convinced that justice will not be forever deferred nor victory delayed.
From the start, Whitehead pushes hard on Elwood’s naiveté. The boy refuses to acknowledge that this is a culture designed to humiliate and crush African Americans. Even when he’s arrested on the flimsiest evidence and sentenced to Nickel Academy, Elwood clings to his faith that goodness will be rewarded, that the rule of law will prevail.
The academy, as Whitehead presents it, is a place of well-groomed exteriors and encouraging principles — a place, if you will, like the United States at large. The superintendent lays out a system of discipline intended to lead young inmates, called “students,” toward greater responsibility and improved behavior. “They put the boys’ fates in their own hands,” one of the staff explains. “It’s up to you.” The whole enterprise sounds as American as Ben Franklin. Elwood consoles himself “with the notion that he just had to keep doing what he’d always done: act right.” Success will surely follow!
Even at this early point in the novel, the pages feel damp with dramatic irony. At the end of his first day at Nickel Academy, Elwood falls asleep to a bone-chilling sound that we know will soon flail his tender hopes. But that’s no matter: This isn’t really a story of suspense. We already come to this story knowing what lurks in the vestry, the dormitory, the detention center, the jail cell — in any closed and unsupervised place where people are subjected to the whims of perverse men. But Whitehead reveals the clandestine atrocities of Nickel Academy with just enough restraint to keep us in a state of wincing dread. He’s superb at creating synecdoches of pain, such as a reference to a fractured wrist chained to a tree. We know in our bones what happened to the rest of that vanished body.
The novel’s real focus, though, is not this relentless flow of abuse but Elwood’s reaction to it. The boy keeps thinking of King’s remarks about “the degradations of Jim Crow and the need to transform that degradation into action.” Elwood tells himself, “I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it.” He persists in imagining that he can chisel each roadblock into another steppingstone along his inspiring path beyond adversity.
How, the novel wonders, will a young man flush with King’s words and imprinted with the nobility of the U.S. Constitution respond to the repudiation of every decent expectation, to what Whitehead describes as “indiscriminate spite”? How, in other words, can African Americans endure in a country that preaches such idealism but delivers such misery?
“The Nickel Boys” feels like a smaller novel than “The Underground Railroad,” but it’s ultimately a tougher one, even a meaner one. It’s in conversation with works by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially King. In the trial of young Elwood, Whitehead dares to test the great preacher’s doctrine of inexorable love. “Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead,” King promised white oppressors, “and we will still love you.” In the comfort of his grandmother’s house, Elwood found that audacious promise powerful and inspiring. But in the factory of agony that is Nickel Academy, he finally realizes: “What a thing to ask.”
And what a deeply troubling novel this is. It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.
“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead, Doubleday, 224 pp., $24.95