The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for The Underground Railroad. Me? I’m the lonely critic who said that The Underground Railroad was over-praised, not even the best of Whitehead’s novels that I value for their inventiveness and their dense specificity. Literalizing the metaphor of the underground railroad was imaginative, but the device leads to a plot of damsel-on-the-rails melodrama in which a plucky protagonist is pursued, not very probably, across the country by a hulking villain out of pulp culture. Whitehead has said his model was Gulliver’s Travels, but The Underground Railroad more resembles a latter-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Several years ago, I called work similar to Whitehead’s—superficially literary but essentially formulaic—“Commercialit” (https://www.thedailybeast.com/will-commercialit-ruin-great-fiction) because it offered easy access, elicited predictable emotional response, and promised the kind of best-seller popularity that The Underground Railroad achieved. Whitehead may not have intended to write Commercialit in The Underground Railroad, but from it he appears to have learned the knack of this middlebrow genre and applied it in purer form in The Nickel Boys.
Like The Underground Railroad, this new and shorter novel follows its protagonist from past violence in the South (a corrupt reform school in Florida) to liberation in the North (in New York City). Elwood, a naïve and idealistic high school senior in early 60’s Tallahassee, is wrongly committed to Nickel Academy, where he observes sexual abuse by the staff and experiences a leg-scarring whipping for trying to break up a fight. Elwood is befriended by Turner, a teen from Houston who has been in Nickel before and has learned how to avoid the worst by hustling the staff and administrators. Short of the worst at Nickel are racism, bad food, no education, bullying, and arbitrary punishments. The best for Elwood and Turner is being assigned to “Community Service” where they do chores off campus for influential townspeople and help their supervisor sell Nickel food supplies (for the black prisoners) to local restaurants. After the friends collaborate on a document that would expose the corruption at Nickel, they have to flee or be put “out back,” interred in the cemetery that holds many boys whose lives were not worth a nickel. Only one friend escapes, and in the last third of the novel Whitehead gives glimpses of the survivor’s fifty years as he, eventually, becomes, like the author, a commercial success in New York—but one who has never fully recovered from the psychological trauma of Nickel.
Just as The Underground Railroad recalls nineteenth-century escaped-slave narratives, The Nickel Boys contains numerous reminders of Ralph Ellison’s up-from-the-Jim-Crow-South classic, Invisible Man. Its naïve and idealistic teenager is forced to blindly box other black boys as whites cheer them on. The central and most detailed chapter in The Nickel Boys (a chapter published as a story in The New Yorker) describes a bout between the best black boxer and the best white boxer at Nickel, an event attended by bloodthirsty white townspeople. One of the fighters is supposed to take a dive so Nickel’s white administrator can win his bets, but the boy fails to do so and ends up “out back.”
Like Ellison, Whitehead constantly plays off optimistic idealism against cynical trickery and employs imagery of invisibility and blindness, including a scene with the glasses-wearing Elwood’s “eye doctor.” Ellison’s protagonist calls himself “Jack”; Whitehead’s Turner’s first name is Jack. Ellison’s Jack gets work making “Optic White” paint; Elwood paints with “Dixie White.” At novels’ ends, each character recognizes he has, in Ellison’s words, a “socially responsible role to play” though we don’t see it happen.
Why Whitehead might want The Nickel Boys to remind readers of Invisible Man is a mystery to me. Ellison’s novel is a grand literary epic of the great migration, and his characters therefore often represent large cultural, economic, and political forces. Invisible Man is also a compendium of different styles from Joycean stream of consciousness to vernacular realism. The Nickel Boys is by comparison a much more limited work, its purview narrower and more personal. But the novel has a saving grace—or horror: its historical exactitude. Whitehead relies on government investigations into the abuses at the notorious Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. In his Acknowledgments, Whitehead cites those investigations, journalistic exposes, and several books on the Dozier School which operated with impunity for decades. Whitehead also provides the URL of a website managed by Dozier survivors who tell their own stories from fifty or more years ago. Most of the men featured on the site are white. The Nickel Boys gives the black perspective on Dozier, the quadruple whammy: being male, young, poor, and African-American.
The Nickel Boys is an earnest “tale,” the word used by Whitehead at novel’s end. It is not a tall or long tale. The book has the economy and directness of a spoken tale, facts and acts, little lingering on internal states, numerous sentence fragments of the kind found in oral discourse—a tic in The Underground Railroad more common in The Nickel Boys. The tale provides only brief backstories of the boys at Nickel. Members of the staff, even a young white man who seems to sympathize with Elwood and Turner, are quickly presented as incompetent (the school doctor) or sexual predators or corrupt and violent. The point of view shifts around. At times, the narration sounds like it might be through Turner. At other times, the narration is a laconic omniscience.
Whitehead may have chosen his rather diffident style and narrative speed to avoid melodrama and sentimentality, features that sometimes flawed The Underground Railroad. But to me The Nickel Boys is more like the outline of a novel than like the best novels that Whitehead wrote before the success of The Underground Railroad. The Intuitionist and John Henry Days were imaginative and ample investigations of race, fictions that exerted authority because they had what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick discourse.” Even Whitehead’s wacky zombie novel, Zone One, had that same quality of worked prose and dense representation. Once Whitehead settled on historical victimization—slavery, abusive incarceration—he seemed to coast as an artist. His subjects did journalistic work that he as a novelist didn’t have to do.
Whitehead’s riffing on Invisible Man may remind readers of the aesthetic argument between Ellison and Richard Wright, whose naturalistic protest fiction, such as Native Son, had little use for Ellison’s literary performances and stylistic subtleties. Reading the early fiction of Whitehead, I did not imagine he would turn Wright-ward. But playing a “socially responsible role” and purveying Commercialit do enable Whitehead to reach many more readers (presumably) than his more distinctly literary novels did. He can do well while doing good.
Perhaps, like Ellison’s protagonist and Whitehead’s Elwood, I, too, am naïve and idealistic, subjecting Whitehead to an eccentric personal expectation that commercial success for the literary novelist should give him or her the security to attempt the masterwork—the next Invisible Man--for which the critic—this critic—longs. A couple of examples: after the breakthrough of Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison gave us Beloved; after White Noise and Libra, Don DeLillo published Underworld. I still believe The Underground Railroad was not the masterwork many reviewers claimed, but I also still believe it might enable one. Not yet 50, Whitehead has time and talent to write it.
—Tom LeClair is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. His seventh--and final--novel, Passing Away, was published in 2018.