I’ve taken it upon myself to participate in Black Lives Matter. I’ve attended a BLM protest, explored my own experience with racism, made financial contributions, and tried to become more educated and empathetic to the systemic plight of Black Americans.
Within this context, I read Colson Whitehead’s THE NICKEL BOYS with high expectations. First, there was the high standard that any Pulitzer Prize winner should live up to, and second, this was Whitehead’s second time being awarded the Pulitzer (THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD).
Whitehead is an incredible writer. He brings all the tools to work: beautiful sentences, strong characters, narrative tension, momentum, perspective, and more. And, of course, he does first and foremost what every good fiction writer must do: keep the reader’s interest by telling a compelling story. He does all of this in a novel that is only two hundred pages in length, resulting in an economical, yet brutal, reading experience.
The first part of the novel introduces us to Elwood, raised by his grandmother in Tallahassee because his parents took off without him. Turns out that kind of family tragedy is pretty common in Elwood’s orbit. But Elwood himself is smart, industrious, and a devoted believer in Martin Luther King’s dream of racial harmony and justice. He’s getting ready to start college.
But then he is arrested through no fault of his own and sent to the Nickel Academy, where boys are tortured and beaten—sometimes to death—and cruelty is as ordinary and everyday as a sunrise.
At the Nickel Academy, he meets Turner, who believes the key to surviving at Nickel is the same as surviving “out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.”
Turner’s philosophy is juxtaposed over Elwood’s faith in King’s exhortations that Blacks can win with love. But through a series of demeaning and violent episodes, Elwood’s faith is damaged, and he and Turner set out to escape from the Nickel Academy.
What follows is the harrowing climax to the novel.
As with many novels, there is a twist, and Whitehead relies on a somewhat familiar literary device to surprise the reader. I didn’t expect it from him. I wouldn’t call this a misstep, but I would say it was somewhat manipulative and not on the same level with the overall brilliance of the novel.