Elwood, the bookish, young hero of Colson Whitehead’s superb seventh novel “The Nickel Boys” (Doubleday, $24.95), is inspired by the Civil Rights Movement but lives in a place where its message in the early 1960s barely registers.
In his black, Tallahassee enclave, Elwood quickly learns “there are people who trick you and deliver emptiness with a smile, while others rob you of your self-respect.”
Elwood’s work ethic and intelligence earn him a chance to attend college while still in high school. While hitchhiking to class, he’s arrested on a bogus charge of abetting a car theft, then shipped to the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school. On his first day there, he observes that the creases in the white superintendent’s uniform “looked sharp enough to cut, as if he were a living blade.” It’s a hint of the violence to come.
Nickel is a chamber of horrors for the black teenagers held there. Those who break the rules are beaten in an outbuilding called the White House, or they mysteriously disappear.
When the bigotry isn’t violent, it’s contemptuous. Classroom education is a farce, the merit system is an ongoing game of move-the-goalposts, and Elwood is enlisted on trips to transfer Nickel’s provisions to white businesses or to serve as free labor at the homes of the friends of Nickel’s minders.
“In here and out there are the same,” a fellow student tells Elwood. “But in here no one has to act fake anymore.”
Nickel is inspired by Florida’s real-life Dozier School for Boys, whose history of sustained, sometimes fatal abuse of students has come to light only in recent years. In Dozier, Whitehead has found a symbol of systemic and persistent racism. His narrative is brutal in its 1960s scenes and just as wrenching when the story shifts to years later, as a free and successful Elwood contends with his memories of Nickel.
Even as “The Nickel Boys” evokes the monstrous reach of Jim Crow, it also embraces the hopeful spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. Elwood cherishes a record album of Martin Luther King sermons, and Whitehead’s prose evokes King’s plainspoken, morally rock-ribbed language calling out injustice.
“This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories,” Elwood thinks.
Race is integral to Whitehead’s fiction. But he typically has approached it from slant angles: His 1999 debut “The Intuitionist,” 2011’s “Zone One” and 2016’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Underground Railroad” all have sci-fi touches.
“The Nickel Boys” is straight-ahead realism, distinguished by its clarity and its open conversation with other black writers: It quotes from or evokes the work of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and others.
Whitehead has made an overt bid to stand in their company — to write a novel that’s memorable, and teachable, for years to come. “The Nickel Boys” is its fulfillment.
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