A heartbreaking tale reinforces the black reality of incessant discrimination and its tragedies.
By Suvanshkriti Singh
Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is a devastating exercise in archaeology. It excavates the not-so-distant past — the American South of Jim Crow — to unearth a history that most would be tempted to erase or let remain buried, at the very least. But, this history is alive and kicking, it is America’s present as much as the rest of the world’s. And Whitehead does not allow his readers the simple pleasure of forgetting.
The protagonist is Elwood Curtis. By all accounts, he is a good kid. Brought up by a strict grandmother, he is idealistic, bright, diligent, and inspired. The words of Martin Luther King Jr guide his principles and his moral compass — he believes in his soul that he is somebody, that he is significant, that he is worthful, and he walks the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness. The kind of youngster who is meant to rise above the station society accorded him at birth, meant for bigger things. Until, that is, he has to pay the price of colour. Just as Elwood is making plans for it, life happens to him; rather, blackness does. A hitchhike to college in the wrong car — an innocent mistake — and Elwood is carted off to Nickel Academy, previously known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys. The juvenile reform prison’s name, like its facade, belied the terrors its interior had to offer — murders, beatings, rapes, solitary confinement, dark cells, and communal derogation.
Repulsive as it is, the violence that characterises Nickel has the texture of an experience one wishes was half-dreamt. It is the portrayal of this violence that reveals Whitehead’s creative brilliance. For all the ugliness of the Nickel life, the novel is almost devoid of graphic descriptions. Cruelty warrants no exaggeration or moderation; nor any sentimentality. This dispassionate treatment enhances one’s sense of horror by making it mundane. There are no shocks, just a pervasive, numbing misery. And pain, almost unbearable — almost appealing to that voyeuristic human instinct which, in the presence of unspeakable brutality, paralyses one in morbid fascination.
The viciousness — both physical and psychological—is central to the author’s politics too. Although a product of the imagination, Whitehead models Nickel after the true revelations about the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. By his own admission, the motivation to write about African American teenagers in 1960s’ Florida came “from the fact that, historically, America doesn’t care about them.” Doesn’t— continues not to. On that account, this slim novel punches well above its weight, being as much a critique of modern society as it is historical fiction. It might not be immediately obvious how the politics of The Nickel Boys is relevant to modern audiences in the subcontinent, but one needs to look no further than the caste system to find equivalencies. Across space and time, the world Whitehead recreates and the one he inhabits share one great similarity: justice, in both, exists in theory only. The novel is not so much about the macabre misadventures of the Nickel boys as it is about institutionalised discrimination — colour or caste offer merely a choice of embellishment.
And yet, this story is not all glum. It is also a tale of a friendship that spans decades, and the simple beauty of how human lives touch one another. Amid the cruel isolation one only experiences when sleeping in a room with 59 strangers, Elwood finds Turner, who, in stark contrast to the former’s idealistic faith, wears an air of practiced cynicism. Turner has served a sentence at Nickel before, he knows better. Inevitably, their influences collide — while Elwood, who had no “goddamned sense,” has his ideological persuasion nuanced by disillusionment, Turner, in spite of himself, is unable to resist naïve optimism. Turner calls Elwood dumb and himself stupid, and that is that.
Whitehead has called The Nickel Boys his “Trumpian” novel, although it could just as easily be named after Modi, Erdogan, or Orban. Its narrative style — jagged, inchoate, and uncertain — reflects the politics of its time. Still, its uniquely American way of talking through generalities with a poignant simplicity renders it beautiful. For times bygone and those to come, this is compulsory reading.