The American Possibilities of Colson Whitehead

A Pulitzer Prize. The cover of Time. Can The Nickel Boys please his new audience while staying true to the quicksilver ironies that have long made him great?

Colson Whitehead.
Colson Whitehead. Chris Close

The longtime Colson Whitehead fan faces a quandary. Without a doubt, the fabulous breakout success of his sixth novel, 2016’s The Underground Railroad—winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, in development by Barry Jenkins as a TV series—could not have been more thoroughly earned. The publication of his new novel, The Nickel Boys, has been greeted by a cover story in Time magazine, its headline declaring him “America’s Storyteller” blazoned across a photo of Whitehead looking off into the distance with the slight frown of weighty destiny on his brow. Truth be told, there’s some entertainment to be found in imagining how this diffident, elusive writer has shouldered the earnest new role bestowed on him—even if what made his work so appealing in the first place was a skeptical eccentricity incompatible with such a role.

With the exception of the autobiographical Sag Harbor, all of Whitehead’s fiction has been tinged with the unreal, if not the outright fantastic. The heroine of his dazzling first novel, The Intuitionist, was an elevator inspector who followed a renegade approach to the job: simply standing in the car and mentally merging with the mechanism that lifts and lowers it. Whitehead’s mournfully elegant 2011 zombie novel, Zone One, was a tribute to the horror fiction he inhaled in his formative years. The Underground Railroad, patterned after Gulliver’s Travels, took its main character through a series of episodes, each representing what Whitehead has called a “different state of American possibility” with regard to race. Like Swift’s masterpiece, The Underground Railroad is a bitter, fantastical satire, something pretty clearly signaled when Whitehead incorporates a literal subterranean railway into the plot. Nevertheless, I’ve met more than one educated adult who otherwise mistook the novel for a historically accurate depiction of antebellum America.

The Nickel Boys is a strictly realist work, albeit still ripe with Whitehead’s signature deadpan wit. It begins with the story of Elwood Curtis, a high school student raised by his grandmother in 1962 Tallahassee, Florida, and an obsessive listener to the album she gave him of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at Zion Hill Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Elwood follows the emergence of the civil rights movement avidly. It appeals to his well-developed and rather stiff-necked sense of right and wrong, a quality dangerous to possess for a black boy in his place and time. Elwood’s moral rigor gets him beaten up by some neighborhood kids when he calls them out for pilfering from the general store where he works after school, even though the store’s owner has long ago decided to shrug off such transgressions. “For him to do nothing,” Elwood decides, “was to undermine his own dignity.” But Elwood’s conscience isn’t what gets him tossed into Nickel. That is just bad luck.

“Nickel” is what its inmates call the Florida Industrial School for Boys, a reform school that puts up a scrubbed façade but has an abattoir out back. Nickel is based on a real institution, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. As Dozier did, Nickel conceals an underbelly of corruption, rape, and savage beatings in a structure called the White House. And like Dozier, Nickel has an unmarked graveyard where the administrators bury the bodies of boys subjected to the most severe punishments. Precocious Elwood is all set to start taking college courses while still in high school, but he hitches a ride to campus in car that turns out to be stolen. The driver gets stopped by a cop, and instead of joining the ranks of his civil rights heroes, Elwood ends up in Nickel.

The novel’s second part recounts Elwood’s introduction to the arbitrary brutality of Nickel. Obeying his own internal moral compass proves disastrous; when he tries to interfere with two bigger kids bullying a littler one, he’s also blamed for the fight and suffers a beating in the White House that leaves him scarred for life. He befriends a boy named Turner, a former Nickel inmate doing a second stint, who informs him that the littler kid “likes it. They play rough, then he takes them into the stall or whatever and gets on his knees. That’s how they do.” Elwood isn’t Candide—he’s seen too much of the world to believe that it’s the best of all possible versions of itself. But Turner becomes his instructor in a new way of looking at life and its possibilities (or lack thereof). “You don’t know what makes him tick,” Turner tells him, of the bullied child. “You don’t know what makes anybody tick. … But now that I been out and I been brought back, I know there’s nothing in here that changes people. In here and out there are the same, but in here no one has to act fake anymore.”

Elwood isn’t having it. “It’s against the law,” he tells Turner, speaking not of the strange masochism Turner alleges but of Nickel in general. The whole place is a violation of “state law, but also Elwood’s. If everyone looked the other way, then everybody was in on it. If he looked the other way, he was as implicated as the rest. That’s how he saw it, how he’d always seen things.”

The heart of The Nickel Boys is this extended dialogue between Elwood and Turner. Elwood believes that if the boys have the courage to stand up for themselves, they can change things for the better. Turner is a cynical loner who argues that “The key to in here 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. … Nobody is going to get you out—just you.”

It’s possible to read the novel naïvely, as a wrenching exposé of the barbarism of so-called reform schools like Nickel, places where boys, black and white, were abused and exploited, just as it’s possible to read The Underground Railroad as a lightly fictionalized report on the atrocity of slavery. There’s a much bigger audience for that simple sort of indictment than for the quicksilver ironies of Whitehead’s earlier works. Can he please them while continuing to fascinate those of us who fell in love with his idiosyncrasies two decades ago? It’s intriguing to watch this novelist figuring out how to split the difference, delivering what can pass as a straightforward “protest novel” of the type he once found uninteresting, while also gratifying his own impulses toward complexity, allusion, and all the other moves of postmodern fiction.

The Nickel Boys has less of the latter, which makes it less ambitious than The Underground Railroad, if also a tighter and neater work. The novel’s third part splits the narrative into two threads, one recounting Elwood’s efforts to break the wheel at Nickel and the other, beginning in 1979, picking up moments in his life later on, as an adult man living in Harlem. New York Elwood works as a mover, and as the story evolves, he sets up his own company, but he’s a far cry from the college-educated crusader the teenage Elwood dreamed of becoming. Did Nickel diminish him in this way, and if so, how did that happen? The answer proves thornier than it at first seems.

As irksome as such generalizations can be, Whitehead has always struck me as one of the most Gen X novelists around, with his passion for trashy ’70s horror films, his almost reflexive self-mockery, and his tendency to employ what he calls “my stock ironic black man character.” His avatar in this novel is not Elwood but Turner, and The Nickel Boys often feels like Whitehead’s conversation with both the idealistic forerunners of the civil rights generation and, by implication, the woke youth of today. Like perhaps his single greatest influence, Ralph Ellison, Whitehead negotiates a tightrope walk between the need to depict the experience of race and racism and a stubborn individualistic resistance to the claims of collective identity. Can the true believers budge him, as Elwood tries to budge Turner? You’ll have to read The Nickel Boys to find out, but rest assured that Colson Whitehead still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Book cover of The Nickel Boys.