The wonderful news is that The Nickel Boys is another triumph: a lean, commanding page turner that provides the richest fictional experience of 2019 so far. Like The Underground Railroad, it’s a story of incarceration and escape, but this time Whitehead is writing in a realist tradition without any sci-fi flourishes. It’s not as inventive, but in its wisdom and maturity it reaches a higher level of achievement...It’s impossible to read without thinking of present-day America and the forces arrayed against anyone who isn’t white. The Nickel Boys doesn’t just excavate America’s most heinous sins, it examines the process by which many Americans have engaged in wilful amnesia. We might flinch, as if the barbarity itself were in poor taste, but Whitehead reminds us how many official narratives of black oppression have been sanitised.
Whitehead neither sentimentalises nor exaggerates the tale that emerges. He writes with a clear-eyed calm, letting his characters, particularly Elwood, speak for themselves. I was reminded in reading it of meeting Bryan Stevenson, the fearless advocate for racial justice in the American south, and some of the facts that he laid out for those who would like to believe that stories like Elwood’s are a thing of the past: since 1970, a quarter of a million children have been sent to adult prisons in the US, including 3,000 sentenced to life without parole. A black boy is still five times more likely to be imprisoned during his life than a white boy, and in several states that still means disenfranchisement for life.
Colson Whitehead’s book is not a polemic, but in presenting the unconscionable history of this particular institution, keeping boys in solitary confinement or even burying them “out the back”, he once again builds an allegorical history that resonates in the present.
Throughout the book, Whitehead seems to constantly remind us that there is a harmful convenience to forgetting past atrocities like these, atrocities which are nevertheless crucial to our understanding of modern issues. This is why The Nickel Boys feels so timely, it is a book which can be applied and reapplied because its themes are so thoroughly universal.
Markedly different in style from his last novel, The Underground Railroad, a fantastical, visionary pastiche of the American slave narrative, The Nickel Boys is ruthlessly realistic; but it, too, seeks to defamiliarise a familiar story... Whitehead’s depiction of the boys’ experiences at Nickel is steeped in vicious fact. But the cruelty is mostly kept off the page: he does not linger pruriently on the sadism or torture... Like Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing – which won the US National Book Award the year after Whitehead – The Nickel Boys is also directly confronting America’s carceral system and its restitution of slavery in all but name.
The Nickel Boys is doing similar historical recuperative work to Whitehead’s previous novel The Underground Railroad. The latter is justly celebrated as one of the most important American books of recent decades, an ambitious and inventive attempt to grapple with the enormity of chattel slavery, to imagine lives out of the paltry evidence left for posterity, often little more than numbers in slaveholding ledgers. For the boys who died at Dozier, there is only borstal bureaucracy and the memories of the traumatised survivors to draw on. Whitehead’s talent is to conjure felt realities out of these meagre archives.
Instead of the violence, Whitehead homes in on the way in which every action fits into a fully orchestrated whole, which is why I would wish everyone, black or white, to read this novel. He demonstrates to superb effect how racism in America has long operated as a codified and sanctioned activity intended to enrich one group at the expense of another. Racism and white supremacy are the ideologies underpinning the economic exploitation of black people, once given legal force by Jim Crow laws. These laws put power into the hands of ordinary white people. A white person could have a black person arrested for “bumptious contact” – not giving way on the sidewalk, say. The system benefited ordinary white people, from the shopkeepers who resold the food supplies meant for the reform school boys, to the housewife who had her gazebo painted at no cost.
At first glance, it would appear that The Nickel Boys eschews the literary tricks of Whitehead’s earlier work for an almost affectless realism. The trajectory of Elwood’s young life does not require long words or fancy sentences but speaks for itself...Despite its plain speaking, The Nickel Boys is as sophisticated — and as important — as The Underground Railroad, as all the work Whitehead has done in chronicling the original sin of his native land. This is a simple yet breathtaking novel, gathering force to the bitter end, striking the reader in its final pages with a revelatory force.
If you were perplexed by all the acclaim lavished on Colson Whitehead’s previous novel, The Underground Railroad — winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction and the National Book award — prepare to be baffled all over again. Reviewers in America are already making laudatory noises about The Nickel Boys, yet this work, while certainly less fanciful, possesses even less substance than its predecessor. Its flaws are so glaring that I can’t help wondering if it is time to start administering drugs tests to book reviewers... Whitehead provides an ample list of sources about the Dozier scandal in his acknowledgments at the close, but to make such an unremittingly bleak episode work as a novel, you need some stylistic flair. He instead opts for colourless, clunking prose that at first seems to be evoking the bland, bureaucratic machinery of the prison administration... Towards the end, a plot twist renders Elwood’s fate even more poignant. By then, though, it is hard to care either way. Given that the novel is based on true events, that is a damning conclusion. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if The Nickel Boys makes a splash, however.
That this masterful novel is based on fact makes it all the more devastating, though Whitehead knows the power of hovering above the horror or cutting away. He’s also adept at creating characters of unforgettable flesh-and-blood immediacy, with even the swiftest pen portrait conveying the full weight of a lived history.
Quietly and purposefully heartbreaking in its portrayal of the lifelong legacy of abuse, it is quite outstanding.
His splendid new novel The Nickel Boys addresses a real historical scandal: the American borstals that brutally abused and even murdered inmates throughout the 20th century. Whitehead’s institution is based on the Dozier School in Florida, but his book is not just a piece of documentary writing. It finds its justification in a marvellous play between the real situation and a novelistic artifice — one which, in the end, proves to be inherent in the human story... This is a heartbreakingly good novel. Its excellence doesn’t lie in the attitude it takes to a social problem, which may immediately impress prize juries. Rather, this is a book which should last because of the elegant refinement of its treatment, and the harmonious and deeply affecting balance it strikes between real-life conditions, and the requirements of the finest and most penetrating art.
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel arrives with a rare fanfare, as the writer recently featured on the cover of Time magazine. His last book, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award...
The Nickel Boys initially appears a less wide-ranging and ambitious work. It’s more straightforwardly realistic and largely focused on a single place closer to the present: a reform school in Sixties Florida, the Nickel Academy, based on the real Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, where the bodies of students have been found in secret graves. But the book’s underlying theme — how the brutality of slavery has seeped into the very soil of America — is equally powerful... Now on his seventh novel, Whitehead has learned a thing or two about the craft of fiction. There’s hardly a spare word in this book, which though gruelling in a way that’s never gratuitous, is full of life. Whitehead has a talent for creating ambiguous, complex scenes that fix in your memory. The Nickel Boys feels like a necessary fictional project, writing the blank or buried pages of US history; and it’s done with virtuosity.
Although The Nickel Boys is a more grounded work than his previous novel, Whitehead loses none of his inventiveness with metaphor; a shed comes to represent the mechanisms that keep white supremacy running while grinding down black boys and girls. He lends his gift to the Nickel boys, who come up with counterintuitive monikers for the instruments and sites of their torture. Dread is the prevailing mood, but Whitehead still makes room for some humor (grim though it may be). Ultimately, the same device that lifts Elwood’s spirits is what lifts ours: a streak of hope that is fortified by the dismal conditions, an undercurrent of optimism that is as keenly felt as the despair... Whitehead’s novel is certainly revelatory, but more for the ways in which it traces these atrocities to the past and present, weaving tragedy into multiple lifetimes. The Nickel Boys isn’t just a testament to systemic racism; it’s an archeology of pain.
Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. ... In a mass culture where there is no shortage of fiction, nonfiction, movies and documentaries dramatizing slavery and its sequels under other names (whether Jim Crow or mass incarceration or “I can’t breathe”), Whitehead is implicitly asking why so much of this output has so little effect or staying power. He applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or “neatly erase” the stories he is driven to tell.