The Nickel Boys

"The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead

THE NICKEL BOYS. By Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. 213 pages. $24.95.

In the publicity run-up for “The Nickel Boys,” his splendid new novel, Colson Whitehead made this statement: “I understand that human beings are wired for cruelty. We are, simply, bad. Good sometimes, sure, but pretty bad. It doesn’t take much of a societal nudge — state-sanctioned slavery, segregation, a police badge — for our programming to kick in.”

What a miracle then that he’s given us two good boys: Ellwood Curtis, a brainy and tender hero who is wired to do the right thing, and his seeming opposite, Jack Turner, a natural con man-in-the-making whose only aspiration is to breathe free air. Both are inmates at a reform school, the Nickel Academy for Boys, modeled after the real Dozier School for Boys in Mariana, Fla.

In its real and fictional iterations, Nickel/Dozier is a soulless place. The irony in Whitehead’s novel is that Nickel is also the incubator for an “incandescent love” in the hearts of his protagonists.

Whitehead first learned of the Dozier School in the summer of 2014 (the summer of Ferguson, Mo.), when its cruelties made the papers. The Department of Justice investigated in 2010 and closed the school in 2011 for excessive violence against students. The house specialty was lashing, sometimes to death, with a whip. Later, archaeologists at the University of South Florida excavated 55 marked and unmarked graves.

Out of these hellish details, Whitehead concocts a physical hell on Earth. In Whitehead’s fictional world, battles rage between resistant individuals and the monolith that stomps on them, whether he’s dramatizing the fight between a boy and a racist system (“The Nickel Boys”) or a human against a machine (“John Henry Days”). Each Whitehead book tweaks in some way the contest between high ideals and hard facts.

After a prologue set roughly in the present, Whitehead opens his novel in 1962. Tallahassee, Fla., Ellwood’s hometown, is sleepy and segregated, but he’s not looking backward. Rather than stew over the unchosen conditions that shape his life, Ellwood is charged up by the future. His own high ideals find a match in civil rights-era promises and especially in Martin Luther King’s message of unending love. The soundtrack of his life is a record album, “King at Zion Hill.”

Whitehead’s book riffs on the meaning and circumference of freedom. The journey is a major structural device: traveling, being free to go, being welcomed and let in, being as good as anybody (as MLK reassured his daughter Yolanda when she wanted so badly to go to Funtown amusement park and was barred by her race).

Ellwood is “in training for the version of himself who lived up the road.” Ironically, his trip up the road lands him in the Nickel Academy. Because he’s such a good kid, one of Ellwood’s teachers arranged for him to take a college class. On his way to check out the campus, he hitches a ride and is picked up by a man driving a space-age Plymouth. In an eyeblink, the police pull the car over, and somehow Ellwood is convicted of car theft. So he takes a detour to a very different campus. Part of the horror of “The Nickel Boys” comes from the hidden potential of a single act.

Like the larger world, Nickel is segregated into white and black arenas. Doubling features most clearly in the racial divide but also in the dark and bright futures assigned to black and white skins. Living a kind of underground life at Nickel Academy, Ellwood’s imagination keeps alive the above-ground, up-the-road future that would have confirmed King’s optimistic forecast.

At Nickel, he enters an indifferent system. Virtue can’t save him and sin can’t doom him. All is whim. Turner has been telling him that freedom and captivity are the same thing. Treat people like an obstacle course, he says. Ellwood’s plan is to “watch and think and plan. Let the world be a mob — Ellwood will walk through it.” In his mind, there is always “the other side,” waiting to welcome him if he can only endure the present. His triumph is to keep alive King’s world, where love and honor still matter.

At Nickel, Whitehead imagines an “infinite brotherhood of broken boys.” The brokenness is obvious: “The Nickel Boys” is a novel punctuated by beatings. Before he leaves home, Ellwood gets a beating from some neighborhood boys who resent his high morality. Once at Nickel, the beatings come, for something small or for nothing at all. The entire campus unites in a yearly ritual, the boxing match between a designated white boy and his black counterpart. Beating is sport; beating is power.

Yet, in Whitehead’s novel, life is not a prison house. Much happens to make brothers of the boys. Ellwood Curtis thinks often of Martin Luther King’s words and finds a way to live up to them: “We will meet your physical force with our soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.”

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.