“The dirt looked wrong.”
A college student noticed it first: a sunken patch in a field, near a shuttered juvenile reformatory school. When the scrub was cleared away, and the broken glass, those who were digging hit bone. The skeletons of more than 50 boys were unearthed, rib cages blasted by buckshot.
This is the opening scene of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, “The Nickel Boys,” which springs from the harrowing true story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in northern Florida. The school opened in 1900 and reigned for more than a century as one of the country’s largest and most notorious homes for abandoned children and those deemed wayward. Boys as young as 6 were chained to walls. There were reports of rape, forced labor, solitary confinement. More than 100 children died at the school between 1913 and 1960.
In recent years, survivors have banded together, calling themselves the White House Boys, after the cinder-block building where brutal beatings were administered. Most of the men who have come forward have been white, as one of Whitehead’s characters observes. “Who spoke for the black boys?” the character thinks. “It was time someone did.”
This novel imagines the lives of two boys struggling to survive an institution here called the Nickel Academy: conscientious, once college-bound Elwood, wrongly accused of stealing a car; and enigmatic Turner, his friend and foil, whose own notions of morality prove intriguingly flexible.
“The Nickel Boys” follows Whitehead’s 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad,” which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and reportedly sold more than a million copies. It continues a remarkable second act for a writer who made his name with clever, high-concept novels that leapt from genre to genre: noir (“The Intuitionist”), a zombie thriller (“Zone One”), a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age account (“Sag Harbor”). For all their eclecticism, they were invariably stories about refuge: losing it, longing for it, running desperately in its direction. They were stories about delusions of progress and the human propensity for evil — extended metaphors of American racism.
“I am working in the African-American literary tradition,” Whitehead said in a 2001 interview. “That’s my aim and what I see as my mission.” To find a particular path within this tradition is not always obvious, especially for a writer so allergic to earnestness and stock narratives. He once lampooned the “Southern Novel of Black Misery”: “Slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day, the legacy of Reconstruction that still reverberates to this day, and crackers. Invent nutty transliterations of what you think slaves talked like. But hurry up — the hounds are a-gittin’ closer!”
A decade later, that same writer has begun to unabashedly explore this genre and make it his own, producing, in fact, the type of sentence he once parodied. “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade,” a character says in the “The Underground Railroad.” “Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.”
It’s not as if Whitehead has succumbed to a kind of writing he once distrusted; rather, it feels like he has shucked off a carapace of self-consciousness to approach his story directly instead of telling it slant. He has purged his prose of the tics, the hectic jokiness, the chandeliers of clauses. Even when he employs conceptual devices (the steampunk train and subterranean tunnels in “The Underground Railroad”), it’s handled lightly. The story is ascendant.
“The Nickel Boys” — a tense, nervy performance — is even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor. The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks. Even if your prose taste runs to curlicue and adornment (mine does), the restraint feels significant. Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic.
The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves (recalling Cora, the heroine of “The Underground Railroad,” with her skepticism of “words to pretty things up”). As in that book, while Whitehead is frank about the barbarity his characters endure, there are few scenes of explicit violence — most of it happens offstage. And none of the violence is exaggerated. A reverence for the victims can be detected in this refusal to sensationalize their suffering. Details are taken from life: The floggings with a leather strap lined with sheet metal and the oversize industrial fan used to muffle the boys’ cries come from the narratives of the White House Boys themselves.
Whitehead stages a philosophical debate of sorts between the two friends: Turner, who believes in the essential evil in people, and Elwood, who insists on their decency. A straight-A student raised on his grandmother’s conviction that “duty might protect him, as it had protected her,” Elwood is enamored with the message of Martin Luther King Jr. and the beauty and bravery of the civil rights protesters — “how the young men’s ties remained straight black arrows in the whirl of violence.” Even in Nickel Academy, he vows to make the best of it. “He consoled himself with the notion that he just had to keep doing what he’d always done: act right.”
He is disabused of this notion, brutally and repeatedly. But it would be a mistake to think that Whitehead is punishing the character for his naïveté. When young Elwood takes to writing idealistic letters to the editor, he adopts a pseudonym, Archer Montgomery, borrowed, as it happens, from the writer himself (Whitehead was born Arch Colson Chipp Whitehead). Debates around respectability politics, narratives of hope and uplift are ones Whitehead has explored consistently over his career (usually taking a Turner-like stance). “Hope is a gateway drug, don’t do it,” he writes in “Zone One.” An enslaved woman on the run in “The Underground Railroad” learning to read trips over a word: “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant.”
Still, Cora ran. Elwood suffers enormously but preserves something of himself that Turner squanders. It is this paradox Whitehead keeps exploring: the foolishness of optimism but also the offense of despair, the complacency it ensures.
Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here, of a cinder-block building that still stands, a school that was closed only eight years ago. Its starkness and irresolution recalls the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s point that the opposite of forgetting is not merely remembrance. It is justice.
Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.
The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
213 pages. Doubleday. $24.95.
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