When a car in which he’s a passenger is pulled over by a police officer, Elwood Curtis is not in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no right place, no right time to be a young black man in America.
That’s as true today as it was in 1960s Florida, the setting of Colson Whitehead’s devastating new novel, “The Nickel Boys.” After Elwood, an idealistic Tallahassee teenager with college dreams, is wrongly convicted of car theft, he’s sent to Nickel Academy, a reform school that promises to transform wayward boys into honorable men. Instead, it’s a sprawling hellscape where sexual violence and murder define the culture more than reading or mathematics.
Here, innocence isn’t lost. It’s violently ripped from the soul. Among the boys, there’s a bitter joke that the academy derives its name from the fact “their lives aren’t worth five cents.” Yet there is also a constant battle for them to hold on long enough to make it to the other side of its mental and physical walls, to retain just enough heart to stay alive.
Even before Elwood lands at Nickel, he has known only a life of imposed limits and sanctions. Jim Crow is the law in Florida, where Elwood’s grandmother Harriet is raising him. For Christmas, she gives him a recording of “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill.” It becomes a fixture on the family turntable, and it forever alters Elwood’s life.
“Every scratch and pop it gathered over the months was a mark of his enlightenment, tracking each time he entered into a new understanding of the reverend’s words,” Whitehead writes. “The crackle of truth.”
King’s words bring into sharp relief the stifling segregation Elwood, Harriet, and other African-Americans endure every moment of their lives. In King’s speeches Elwood imagines a light, however dim and distant, beckoning him to surpass society’s low expectations of what a black teenager nearing manhood can achieve.
Harriet, who has the hard wisdom of age, isn’t so sure.
When the Supreme Court announces its landmark 1954 school desegregation ruling, she “shrieks as if someone had tossed hot soup in her lap,” Whitehead writes. Then she short-circuits her revelry. “Jim Crow ain’t going to just slink off. His wicked self.” While Elwood envisions other doors opening as well, his grandmother reminds him of the dangerous illusion of progress. “It’s one thing to tell someone to do what’s right and another thing for them to do it.”
Yet Elwood is unswayed, and this marks him in a way he can’t fully comprehend. He’s the most dangerous being in America: a black person who believes he deserves more than the scraps that a racist society will allow. White supremacy sustains itself by stymieing black ambition. Elwood’s plans are boundless, and his mind buzzes with King’s exhortations, even when he has trouble believing he can live up to them.
At Nickel, he’s befriended by Turner, a savvy kid doing his second stint. That he has somehow lasted mostly intact speaks to his ability to navigate the capricious whims of his world. “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there — you got to see how people act, then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course,” Turner tells Elwood. “If you want to walk out of here.”
Whitehead spends nearly a fourth of this novel on Elwood’s pre-Nickel life. We know him, and the dread of what awaits is nearly unbearable. Not a moment is wasted, and for someone who writes as vividly as Whitehead, there’s also a graceful economy here. He uses words carefully, as if he doesn’t want them to get in the way of the truths he’s excavating.
Those insistent truths still demand our attention. In the unchecked horror inflicted at Nickel, Whitehead evokes the current-day madness of children kept in squalid conditions, of young ones lost in a system that cares nothing about them, and a government more concerned with incarceration than compassion.
Whitehead captures how humanity is stripped away. “Take him from his family,” Whitehead writes, “whip him until all remembers is the whip, chain him so all he knows is chains.”
It’s not just the nights in the “White House,” as it’s called, where boys are violated by a leather strap that cuts like a razor. Elwood’s first trip “out back” is so harsh, a doctor uses a tweezer to pick out bits of embedded fabric from his shredded flesh. More indelible, though, are the unseen wounds still festering years later.
“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by the place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing [things] that save lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses . . . but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary,” Whitehead writes. “Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”
Whitehead, whose last novel, “The Underground Railroad,” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has again found dark inspiration in an overlooked corner of our nation’s history. Earlier this year, a forgotten plot of Florida land had its dreaded secret revealed: a graveyard. Buried there were the bodies of boys who had been sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a state-run facility. Some died of disease and neglect; others were murdered — shot while trying to escape, or tortured and lashed to death, for even minor infractions. Family members would be told a missing child had run away.
If God exists, he had long ago turned his back on such forsaken places. In “The Nickel Boys,” Whitehead’s novel won’t allow us to do the same to the kids who survived, or those finally freed from an unmarked graveyard that could hold its silence no more.