Elwood, the young, bookish hero of Colson Whitehead’s superb seventh novel, “The Nickel Boys” (Doubleday, 224 pp., ★★★★ out of 4 stars), 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 learns quick that “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 earns him a chance to attend college while still in high school. But 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, 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 sentenced there. Those who break the rules are beaten in an outbuilding called the White House or else 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 serve as free labor at the homes of the friends of Nickel’s minders.
It is a place that says the quiet part loud about American racism. “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 a real place, Florida’s 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 valuable symbol for systemic and persistent racism in America. His narrative is brutal in its '60s scenes, and just as wrenching when the story shifts to years later, as a free and successful Elwood contends with his memories of Nickel. (The full depth of his anguish emerges when a well-concealed plot twist is revealed.)
But if “The Nickel Boys” evokes the monstrous reach of Jim Crow, it also embraces the hopeful spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. Elwood cherishes an LP of Martin Luther King sermons, and Whitehead’s prose evokes King’s plainspoken, morally rock-ribbed language that calls 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 has long been integral to Whitehead’s fiction. But he’s typically approached it from slant angles: His 1999 debut, “The Intuitionist," 2011’s “Zone One,” and 2016’s Pulitzer-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 more.
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.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Colson Whitehead's 'The Nickel Boys' win him another Pulitzer?