THE NICKEL BOYS, by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 224 pp., $24.95.
Among the literary relatives of Colson Whitehead’s stellar new novel “The Nickel Boys” is George Orwell’s famous personal essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys.” In it, Orwell describes at length the physical and mental abuse, “the force and fraud and secrecy” that prevailed at the British boarding school he was sent to from 1911 to 1916. Among the horrifying details he provides is a description of the porridge served in the dining hall; it contained "more lumps, hairs and unexplained black things than one would have thought possible, unless someone were putting them there on purpose."
Disgusting porridge, force, fraud and secrecy are all in play at the South Florida reformatory school in Colson Whitehead’s heartbreaking coming-of-age novel. But young Eric Blair endured his ordeal and went on to become George Orwell. Whitehead’s characters, whose version of this story is shot through with the depravity of Jim Crow, are not so fortunate.
“The Nickel Boys” is Whitehead’s ninth book, and arrives on the heels of “The Underground Railroad,” winner of both the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Though I admired “The Underground Railroad,” it didn’t come close to involving my emotions in the way “The Nickel Boys” has. Where that novel had the heady contrivances of magical realism, this one has the hot breath of a true story. It also has a beautiful, unforgettable young hero who walks right off the page into your heart.
In a prologue, a group of archaeology students from the University of South Florida uncovers a secret graveyard on the grounds of a long-closed reform school. The skeletons they dig up have “fractures and cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot.” As Whitehead explains in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, this really happened; it was reported in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. The students’ discovery precipitated the emergence of horrific truths about the erstwhile Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, the real-life model for Whitehead’s Nickel Academy.
The main part of the novel opens in 1962, when we meet high school student and tobacco store clerk Elwood Curtis. Elwood has a big mind, a brave spirit and a prodigious capacity for hard work. The realities of life for black people in the South could not be clearer to him, and he is drawn to the nascent civil rights movement. When he receives for Christmas an album of Martin Luther King’s recorded speeches, it is “the best gift of his life … even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.”
Dr. King’s imperative — “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness” — becomes Elwood’s lodestar, countering the opposite message about his worth that is delivered to him every day, one way or another, including the day when he was six and his mother left town, never to be seen again.
The summer of Elwood’s junior year, he gets an opportunity to attend Melvin Griggs Technical, “a colored college south of Tallahassee” that admits gifted high school students. Since bullies have wrecked his bike, he has to hitchhike to campus his first day. He is picked up by a man in an emerald Plymouth, but they haven’t gone more than a few miles when they are pulled over by the police. The car is stolen. Then Elwood is headed to another campus entirely.
“In a sad joke,” the red brick buildings and lush lawns of Nickel Academy resemble Elwood’s vision of Melvin Griggs. But what awaits him at Nickel is a very different sort of education for the mind and body, a brutal gauntlet that tests and transforms his understanding of King’s gospel: We will wear you down by our ability to suffer, and one day we will gain our freedom. Fortunately, he meets an ally, a boy named Turner, who eats soap powder in order to be sent to the hospital where Elwood is recovering from his first visit to what the boys call The Ice Cream Factory.
“The Nickel Boys” has the appealing shape of a classic coming-of-age story: the promising but naive protagonist, the trusty sidekick, the idiot authorities, the wily plan. But for black boys in the South in the early '60s, no coming-of-age was on the agenda. The future was a hoax.
If you have been thinking you should read Colson Whitehead, “The Nickel Boys” is the perfect place to start.