The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead’s ninth novel deserves all the hype. Though it’s many things—a bildungsroman, a modern slave narrative—it’s first and foremost great fiction with the artifice of a suspenseful plot and a twist-ending. Whitehead uses these elements to explore themes of moral development and identity in the crucible of racial injustice of the Jim Crow South in the 1960s.
When Elwood arrives at the Nickel Reform School for boys, Superintendent Spencer gives him a rundown on the school’s comportment system. The highest behavioral accomplishment—and the only legitimate way to escape Nickel—is to achieve the rank of “Ace”. An Ace, Spencer explains, “listens to the housemen and his house father, does his work without shirking and malingering, and applies himself to his studies. An Ace does not roughhouse, he does not cuss, he does not blaspheme or carry on. He works to reform himself, from sunrise to sunset” (49). Of course, this describes Elwood to a tee. Anyone from his home neighborhood of Frenchtown Tallahassee would describe the teenage devotee of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as studious, eager, honest and winsome. But Nickel is an institution defined by discrimination, a farcically lax education program and corporal punishment with homicidal proclivities, so Elwood, because of the color of his skin, will never be recognized as an ace. Being an African American hitchhiker in a stolen car was enough to get Elwood sentenced as an accessory to theft and diverted from his promising life as a running-start student into Nickel’s gauntlet of the absurd where Elwood must put to the test Dr. King’s philosophy of resistance through decency and love.
Like Dostoevsky here, Whitehead is interested in testing out the durability of an ideal in the snarl of the real world. Having taken to heart King’s message to refuse mediocrity and complaisance, Elwood endeavors to succeed in the corrupt institution’s system. For his efforts, Elwood is first ignored, then beaten. As Elwood suffers for the actions King’s message leads him to take, he revisits and interrogates King’s message for its utility.
To complicate things, Elwood is befriended by Turner—a streetwise runaway doing his second stint at the reform school. Obvious from the outset, Turner is Elwood’s foil. The cynical Turner assures Elwood that Nickel is just existence writ large (81) and that in response to the duplicitous wickedness of people, one must “see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course” (82).
Rather than all-out rejecting it, Elwood integrates his new friend’s advice into his ethos. Turner arranges for Elwood to join him on a work assignment that will allow him to observe the depths of Nickel’s depravity and graft. In observing however, Elwood becomes an accomplice. To what level will Elwood’s uprightness be sullied by Turner’s pragmatic approach inside a debauched institution? Whitehead runs Elwood’s arc along this line of inquiry. In doing so, Whitehead crafts a character-driven work. No matter how grizzly the external horrors of Nickel get, they merely catalyze the internal development of Whitehead’s characters.
If Elwood’s tenor is morality, Turner’s is identity. Lithe, slick, quick to settle, Turner’s mentality appears more adaptive than Elwood’s in adversity. But it has consequences for the long haul. Post Nickel, Turner must confront the question of who he is. In the novel’s motif of rigged contests and games, Turner often choses to act like another sucker (112) because its comfortable and allows him to enjoy the idiocy of his peers while matching their emotion. He avoids the lofty ideals of resistance. But the price Turner pays for this life of subterfuge is internalized low self-esteem. Turner’s comfortability in uncomfortable situations is described from Elwood’s perspective as “eerie” (57). Elwood is responding to Turner’s uncanny emotional suppression. Turner’s friendship with Elwood forces him to reconsider his identity, defined by his mercenary approach to the vile racism surrounding him. To what degree Turner will take up King and Elwood’s cause of justice is a question which Whitehead’s plot answers in its final pages with a crescendo.
Despite Whitehead’s cinematic story-telling and thematic unity, the feeling that reverberates in a reader of The Nickel Boys is rage in the face of staggering loss. As we’re told in the first sentence, the Nickel boys are trouble even in death. But the trouble Whitehead intends them to be is a trouble to our consciences. In writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead is a voice for the voiceless thousands of African American boys who, without cause, were brutalized, silenced and condemned to lives of tragic obscurity in and out of white institutions. Based off the Dozier Reform School in Florida, Whitehead’s Nickel becomes a controlling metaphor for the slavery of the past and mass incarceration of the present.
Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his beautiful wife. He teaches ESL to adults, but for the previous six years, he worked with youth with disabilities and mental illness in various settings, teaching them writing and other subjects.