“The Nickel Boys”
Author: Colson Whitehead
Price: $24.95 (Hardcover)
Years ago I met a man who had made a success in Hollywood writing ethnic wedding scenes, a narrow specialty indeed. This man wrote the extraordinary wedding scenes for the first “Godfather” movie, Italian Roman Catholic, and “The Deer Hunter,” Russian Orthodox.
If Hollywood should develop a need for a specialist to write scenes of savage beatings, Colson Whitehead is their man.
Early in Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, “The Underground Railroad,” the slave Big Anthony is tortured with unspeakable cruelty and perversion for three days. Early in “The Nickel Boys,” the protagonist Elwood Curtis is beaten so terribly with a leather instrument, “Black Beauty,” that the fabric of his trousers is driven into his legs, which become infected, and he is hospitalized for a week.
The scenes are searing. Such depictions of cruelty verge on aesthetic malfeasance, or self-sabotage. These scenes cannot enhance sales.
Will the average American reader, a middle-aged woman in her living room in Connecticut, find the strength to read further?
But, in novels as important as “Underground Railroad” and in “Nickel Boys,” of course the reader should carry on. Whitehead is one of our best. There is a lot of book here, and a lot to be learned.
“Nickel Boys,” based on an actual school in Marianna, Florida, has a framing story. Around 2014, unmarked graves are discovered and the horrors of the 1960s are investigated.
Whitehead has fictionalized what we now know went on there and although his imagination is somewhat hampered by history—he cannot imagine an actual underground railroad in a tunnel leading North to freedom—there is still plenty of story here.
The protagonist, Elwood Curtis, 17, is a good boy. His drug-addicted mother has run off but he is being raised by a loving grandmother. He studies hard, keeps a part-time job, avoids bad company, but trouble finds him anyway. In a scene of transcendent unfairness, Curtis is arrested and sent to reform school. Even there, he continues to be a decent, intelligent and kind-hearted young man.
In fact, the action that got him sent to the White House, a little building on campus specially designed for punishment, was altruistic. He stepped in to prevent bullying, he thought.
Elwood is, as they say, too good for this world. He is absolutely too good for Nickel Academy.
We get a glimpse of his virtue in a flashback to when he was working as a clerk in Mr. Marconi’s tobacco shop. Mr. Marconi is white; the neighborhood is black. Elwood just can’t stand it when he sees his buddies shoplifting candy. Mr. Marconi tells him: “You lose a percentage here and there, but that was in the overhead—kids steal a candy bar today but they and their friends spend their money in the store for years. Them and their parents. Chase them out over some little thing…then the parents stop coming in because they’re embarrassed.” To Marconi, “Letting the kids steal was almost an investment….”
Elwood, no pragmatist, can’t see it this way. He stops some boys from stealing and later that day they beat him up on his way home.
His innate virtue, his patience, are augmented by listening to an LP of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., speeches which form a leitmotif in “Nickel Boys,” King preaching nonviolence, forgiveness, the certain hope of justice and fairness one day.
But not today: inside the reform school is hell. The boys are abused by the guards and the smaller boys by the bigger. Corruption is the norm. The boys are hungry and malnourished while the administration secretly sells their food to local restaurants, their toiletries, including toothpaste, to the local pharmacy, their notebooks and pencils to the five & dime, their labor to local citizens.
Some resisters, complainers, are actually “disappeared”—murdered. No one cares.
Readers will writhe and howl at the injustice inside Nickel.
But Elwood’s best friend, Turner, another bright lad caught up in the Jim Crow South, philosophizes. He used to think “‘everybody in Nickel was different because of what being in here does to you…but now I know there’s nothing in here that changes people. In here and out are the same, but in here no one has to fake anymore.’”
Bigots and bullies are unrestrained. People act as their characters dictate.
“Nickel Boys” is a tough read. In less capable hands it might veer off into propaganda, but Whitehead is too thoughtful and talented for that. Besides the implicit social commentary, there are memorable characters drawn, and a story with some surprising twists.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.