JULY 31, 2019
I USED TO THINK novels contained immensities, which came from reading the great works during my college years and the resulting expansion of my mind. I assumed the novels themselves contained huge portions of the world. It took decades for me to understand that novels did not contain the world but were rather distillations of a few struggles of one or more characters, and through these struggles we feel the swelling of our empathetic capacities. It’s a kind of magic, but the trick, at root, is a simple one, in which the reader plays a prominent role.
One of our best contemporary magicians is Colson Whitehead, whose latest novel, The Nickel Boys, conjures the lives of students who are subjected to the Nickel Academy, a kind of reform school for boys in Florida circa 1955. The segregated Nickel is actually a corrupt den where kids receive savage beatings for minor or nonexistent infractions, authority figures like to watch boys shower, and the staff sells the supplies meant for the African-American students to the highest bidder in town. Spirit breaking is the rule of the day. Whitehead’s protagonist, Elwood, whose book smarts and love for the lofty rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. might make him an unlikely Nickel student, manages to get arrested for someone else’s crime. It’s the kind of situation any African-American boy in the South of any era can’t afford to get caught in. It doesn’t matter that Elwood is morally pristine, resourceful, and a hard worker at his local five-and-dime. “Optimism made Elwood as malleable as the cheap taffy below the register.” At minimum, Nickel challenges each student’s credulity, and compared to some of the other possible fates associated with the school, a good credulity challenge would be getting off easily.
After a night at the school’s Ice Cream Factory, an aptly named academy division where the staff gets to act out its brutality, Elwood comes to understand the insidious power of hate in his world:
There was no higher system guiding Nickel’s brutality, merely an indiscriminate spite, one that had nothing to do with people. A figment from tenth-grade science struck him: a Perpetual Misery Machine, one that operated by itself without human agency. Also, Archimedes, one of his first encyclopedia finds. Violence is the only lever big enough to move the world.
No amount of toeing the line and looking up words in the dictionary would have allowed Elwood to evade the impersonal horror divvied out to folks like him. From this single boy’s experience, Whitehead shows the racist methods of an entire society in their power to destroy hope.
Elwood’s best friend, Turner, suffers no illusions about the school or the world they live in. Turner, whom Elwood describes as possessing an “eerie sense of self,” winds up at Nickel after lashing out at a society that requires African Americans always, on some level, to be subservient to whites. Turner’s path to Nickel is paved during his work as a pin setter at a bowling alley. He fostered a power dynamic with the white clientele in which he’d “make a joke when they fouled, or make some clown face like this when they threw a gutter or had some funny-looking split.” A bowling alley cook awakens Turner to the role he placed himself in. “It was a hot night. And he looks me up and down. He says to me, ‘I see you out there, nigger, putting on a show. Why you always shucking and jiving for these white people? Ain’t nobody ever teach you self-respect?’”
Being made so publicly aware of his mistake foments a spite that Turner eventually can’t contain, which is all society needs to push him into the system of bad kids. When times get tough, Elwood hearkens back to the words of Dr. King. Turner reverts to his shame and accompanying fury for a world that pens him into such a role. Through the plights of these two boys, Whitehead evokes decades, centuries, of American sin.
Years after Nickel closes, the process of readying its land for real estate development reveals a secret graveyard that includes many of the school’s African-American students thought “missing” back in the day. Particularly nightmarish is the fact that the novel is based on news reports from the Tampa Bay Times and other sources that chronicled the uncovering of similar grave sites at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. At its base, The Nickel Boys isn’t a story Whitehead concocts to foster reverie; this stuff actually went down. The novel recasts the Dozier School story from the students’ perspective, where Nickel boys are taken “out back,” never to return. Whitehead’s choice to fictionalize this account was no doubt influenced by the well-wrought nonfiction writing and reporting that brought him to the Dozier School nightmare in the first place. There was no need to retell it from another factual angle. The novel form, however, allows him to render the individual struggles of these characters in ways that are more evocative. For example, Whitehead writes of Jaimie, whose Mexican heritage means he is as frequently herded with African-American students as with white: “He had the screwed down smile of the rickety toothed. ‘One day they’ll make up their minds, I suppose.’” Whitehead gives the academy boys such as Elwood, Turner, and the rest dignified lives through their specific travails, and in this way, they act as stand-ins for the real-life victims. It is impossible not to feel differently for the Dozier School students after reading The Nickel Boys, and this grants Whitehead’s novel a purpose beyond mere entertainment. The tale reemphasizes the heinous crimes committed against African Americans far too often in this country. Through a reimagining of the facts, Whitehead creates a deeper, more universal truth, which is the noblest of fiction’s many tricks.
The prospect of reviewing Whitehead led me to have his previous best seller, The Underground Railroad, in my hand on three different occasions. What prevented me from buying this book? Did all those accolades (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award) make it too obvious a choice? Did the subject matter strike me as a little too similar to The Nickel Boys? Was I ready for fiction with less pain? In any case, on a fourth trip to Powell’s, I instead bought a remaindered copy of Whitehead’s 2009 novel, Sag Harbor, seemingly forgotten among his more recent triumphs. Why not root for the underdog?
My choice was not entirely random: both The Nickel Boys and Sag Harbor feature groups of African-American male adolescents; Sag Harbor concerns itself with Benji and his crew as they navigate their teenage years in the New York area during the 1980s, with a heavy emphasis on their summers in the predominantly African-American beach community of Sag Harbor, on the bay side of the Hamptons. Benji — the son of a doctor and lawyer — attends private school in the city and summers in Sag Harbor. You might say he’s a kind of ideal offspring of Elwood and Turner’s generation, the product of that earlier group’s daily hard-fought battles against racism in the pursuit of their own and their future families’ happiness. Ostensibly, Benji concerns himself more with the commercial trappings of his day — pop music, monster magazines, Dungeons & Dragons — but his real focus is on how he goes about becoming himself. “Keeping my eyes open, gathering data, more and more facts, because if I had enough information I might know how to be.” One would be blind not to notice the drastic change of struggles from one book to the other, from the daily physical and spiritual survival of Elwood and Turner to Benji’s concerns with the construction of a self. Thankfully, the latter will never fully know the pain of the former, but even middle-class teenagers have their challenges: puberty, sex, and adulthood only a lazy summer or two away. Anguish, it seems, takes many forms, but there is no doubt which of Elwood’s or Benji’s plight represents progress.
Benji largely skirts the brutality that has been brought upon his race in favor of the exhilarations of 1980s teenage life. The charm he holds for his resplendent surroundings poses a striking contrast to life at Nickel. There are many instances in which Benji holds court on the deep fulfillment found in the world they inhabit, like when he takes a drink of Coca-Cola: “That tart first sip, preferably with the ice knocking against the lips for an added sensory flourish, that stunned the brain into total recall of pleasure, of all the Cokes consumed before and all those impending Cokes, the long line of satisfaction underpinning a life.” Updikean-style tropes of an American life well lived pepper the novel, at times its raison d’être. If Sag Harbor represents the privilege of a small group of African-American families in New York, The Nickel Boys reminds us of the foundation of injustice upon which that privilege was difficultly built. It takes African-American society several decades to catch up to the American Dream as posed in the typical Updike rendering, and then only for a very lucky and resourceful few.
Most striking about reading these books in tandem is the sense that their disparate worlds exist so closely in time and space and yet know so little of each other. Both Elwood and Benji are African-American adolescents living in the latter half of the 20th century. Elwood, with his eyes trained on his future and the necessary hard work and political action it will take to get there, can perhaps imagine something of Benji’s life — if just in the overtones of Dr. King’s speeches. Still, even before his sentence to the Nickel Academy, his actual contact with the middle class is scant. Likewise, Benji, completely immersed in his private school and pop culture world, only gets echoes of the pain through his father — someone he manages to avoid for much of the story. The narrowing of scope of each of these novels to include only hints of the other isn’t some kind of oversight but the necessary reduction that makes the novel form work. It allows Whitehead to focus his stories on the individual struggles of his characters, who can only know and care about so much. In each book, the other proximal world is present as either the metaphorical carrot or stick of the protagonist’s motivations, something that shapes him in ways he can and can’t know. In this way, Whitehead creates individual portraits that are all the more evocative for their singularity. His focus allows us to fill in the rest of the world with our imaginations. Any real expansion happens one soul at a time.