Colson Whitehead
The Nickel Boys

“Freedom,” wrote James Baldwin, still the most subtle and anguished anatomist of race in American letters, “is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”

Colson Whitehead’s quietly devastating new novel, his seventh over two decades, is a story about the absolute necessity of freedom, as well as the costs that come from its possession. It is a work where tragedy emerges from the ubiquity of un-freedom experienced by most African Americans throughout much of the history of the United States. And it is a novel powerful to the degree that Whitehead refuses to scale his narrative up to a size commensurate with the scandal it describes.

Take the opening pages: their wry, weary, posthumous tone – their sense that American history is so littered with cruelty that any further examples threaten to simply clutter up the place. And literally so, because the novel’s beginning describes the discovery of human bones by a student archaeologist on a site earmarked for commercial development.

We’re in Florida, the near present, and the ground from which the remains are exhumed once belonged to a boys’ home – the now-shuttered Nickel Academy. These remains are separate from the home’s official cemetery, which is itself far fuller, we come to understand, than it ever needed to be. The bodies at this second site were dumped in potato sacks: a detail that, in its modest awfulness, communicates what you need to know about the perceived value of the boys committed to the Nickel’s care.

Without much further preamble, the story circles back to the early 1960s. There we meet Elwood Curtis, a bright black boy being mainly raised by the kitchen staff of the Tallahassee hotel where his grandmother cleans rooms. Elwood’s parents lit out years before, leaving him in the care of a woman whose dignity is untrammelled by circumstance.

Elwood’s most precious possession is an album, Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, a series of speeches by the civil rights leader whose rhetorical grandeur and moral suasion Elwood wears out needles absorbing. Even in his boyhood, Elwood senses a moment is arriving in which the colour of his skin will not be the determinant fact of his existence. He is convinced by Dr King that he is, indeed, “as good as anyone”.

The life of this admirable and intelligent boy is sketched with ironic swiftness by Whitehead. Mr Marconi, a kindly neighbourhood tobacconist, gives him a job early on. The politicised teacher at Elwood’s school, Mr Hill, finds a place for his talented student at a local college, promising a world of education and possibility. And behind these, Elwood’s quietly adoring grandmother, Harriet, lives beneath her modest means to save every stray cent to make this future real.

Then, with unforgiveable velocity, Whitehead whiplashes the reader. On the way to his first day at university, Elwood accepts a ride from an older black man, and they are stopped by the police. The car is stolen and both occupants of the vehicle are treated as guilty parties. Elwood Curtis finds himself a ward of the Nickel Academy.

From this point on, much of the novel is given over to a prison narrative that locates Elwood at its heart. Through him, we learn more than we would ever wish to know about the unofficial apartheid practised in the American south during the mid-20th century. We learn, too, about the ferocious and dutiful application of these policies at the micro level: the physical and mental punishments meted out to reinforce the second-tier status of black kids incarcerated at Nickel.

Elwood makes one fast friend early on: Turner, a boy whose upbringing has left him more sceptical about Dr King’s nostrums regarding peaceful nonviolence and loving one’s jailers. Nonetheless, Turner can’t help but be impressed by Elwood’s pluck. Nothing he says or does can persuade Elwood to give up on those notions of equality instilled by the speeches from Zion Hill.

The Nickel Academy claims to provide “physical, intellectual and moral training” that will equip its inmates to become “honourable and honest men”. In reality, it is a nightmare of the kind that Solzhenitsyn’s gulag inmate Ivan Denisovich would readily recognise. The home is a hotbed of physical and sexual abuse. Its primarily white staff milk the place of funding for their own pockets and they beat the black wards of the home with a violence that leaves many, including Elwood at one point, close to death. Others fare worse and end up in the cemetery.

Then, just when the narrative appears to be reaching an unbearable pitch, Whitehead shifts time frame once more: to the future, where the now-adult Elwood, living in New York, makes a more-than-modest living from his removals business and seeks to bury the past that once sought to bury him.

This more contemporary strand relieves some of the pressure of the primary narrative but raises more questions than it answers. How did Elwood get out of Nickel? Why has he not become the kind of man his early life promised he would? Why does he shun a fellow former inmate of Nickel when the two happen across one another? Presumably he is spending his maturity sweating out the trauma of those years, but still, something doesn’t gel.

The answer to these questions comes late and out of nowhere. To reveal more would be to give away a crucial narrative surprise, one that reverse-engineers the novel in melancholy and illuminating ways.

The Nickel Boys starts out as a story about the survival of dignity in the face of overt racism and institutional violence. The failure of those hoped-for advances in black equality laid down by King necessarily complicates matters.

Whitehead’s novel admits that true racial equality lies outside the strict realities of American society. Yet its triumph is to preserve some slender margin for hope. This possibility is preserved in Elwood Curtis, one of that rarest of creatures: a true rebel. His example reverberates through a story that should, by rights, merely serve as his coffin.

Geordie Williamson

Hachette, 224pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Geordie Williamson