The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

Fleet, £16.99

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” So began Ford Maddox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, but it could equally have been the opener to The Nickel Boys. Pulitzer-winner Colson Whitehead’s novel is so steeped in cruelty, injustice and neglect you have sometimes to look away from the page, and pause to draw breath.

Whitehead is a New Yorker whose fiction entered the popular bloodstream with The Underground Railway in 2016. This runaway success, his sixth novel, made him one of the figureheads of the American literary scene, a writer who in fiction and non-fiction has addressed a host of different issues, in such a variety of styles, that he has earned himself the label “post-black”.

Badges, of course, are meaningless. What matters is the writing, and where it takes us. The Underground Railway has become a handbook for younger generations encountering in fiction the legacy of slavery and racial oppression. Following in the footsteps of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, it is a modern, fantastical reworking of a very old and sore subject.

The Nickel Boys is also historic, but barely. Indeed, what makes this book so painful, beyond its harrowing plot, is that it is based on real events, and those events are recent. The story Whitehead relates takes place in the 1960s, but as one present-day survivor reflects: “It wasn’t far off at all. Never will be.”

Do not be fooled by its name. The Nickel Academy is not an upmarket educational establishment, but a reformatory in Florida for young offenders. Here, white boys and black are kept in separate wings. The teachers and officials are white, and their attitudes, as becomes quickly evident, are akin to the Ku Klux Klan.

The reader is introduced to the academy through the bright and optimistic person of Elwood Curtis, who has been smitten by Martin Luther King’s speeches, and tries to live by his idealistic principles: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” Eager to learn, Curtis had been about to start college – a huge upward step for a boy from his background – when he accepted the offer of a lift from another black boy, in what he did not realise was a stolen car. Abandoned in childhood by his parents, and raised in near poverty by his strict but devoted grandmother, he is suddenly on the wrong side of the law, and of any chance of a decent life thereafter.

In this, there is a family precedent. The bedrock of this novel is found in the misplaced expectations of black soldiers in the war-time era. Curtis’s father was a GI, who returned from duty expecting a new America. As his grandmother recalls, “He came back evil. Not because of what happened overseas but from what he saw on his return... Perhaps his life might have veered elsewhere if the US government had opened the country to colored advancement like they opened the army. But it was one thing allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.” After he is attacked by white boys who hate seeing him in uniform, he becomes a wild and violent man.

Less than two decades later his son falls victim to the same gleeful prejudice and hatred, a threat that Whitehead tells us is still alive and thriving today. Arriving at The Nickel Academy, Curtis is horrified to discover how many of his fellow inmates are barely literate. Enquiring about taking classes more suited to his intellectual level is only his first mistake. When he rushes to the aid of a boy he sees being beaten by bullies, events spiral into a situation it would be uncomfortable and distressing for any novelist to describe.

Whitehead has been criticised by New Yorker critic James Wood for his over-energetic prose. What impresses about The Nickel Boys, however, is his measured tone. It is as if the bare bones of what he writes speak for themselves, and require no emphasis or artificial colour: “Most of those who know the story of the rings in the trees are dead now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”

Whitehead is referring to the outdoor place to which the worst black miscreants were taken to be punished. After Curtis’s initiation into what happens to those who step out of line or challenge the school swaggerers or their supervisors, he learns to keep his head low, his expression dead. But his hopes of one day bringing the torments of the Nickel boys to public attention and being freed to a better life never die, and in that belief lies his fate. Meanwhile, making his existence bearable, is his friendship with a street-wise youngster called Turner. Where Curtis sees possibilities, Turner sees only trouble. You could call him cynical, but a better word might be smart.

Out of the exploits of this pair, as they negotiate their incarceration, Whitehead creates a devastating portrait of how little the white world has cared for the black. The Nickel Boys opens in our own times with the discovery of hidden graves, outside the school’s official graveyard. As he laconically explains, “Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it.”

There is an airlessness and pitiless momentum to this novel. Whitehead, one feels, has had to rein in his rage and sorrow to allow the story to unfold plainly. Only at the very start is there any hint of editorialising, of imposing his opinion, giving voice to his contempt and despair. What follows is an account that speaks not just to the appalling treatment of the black boys in the Nickel – modelled on The Florida School for Boys – but highlights sinister parallels with our own age. As recent incidents have shown, in pockets of America there exists a state, at best, of indifference to people of colour, at worst of hostility and racist abuse.

The many deaths of black youths at the hands of white police, the increasingly racist and inflammatory language from Washington and those in the government’s thrall, are indications of a mood that does not bode well for the disadvantaged, the disempowered, and above all the black community. Whitehead’s name for the barn where the Nickel’s black boys are whipped, and worse, is hardly subtle. It is called The White House.