what i'm reading: the nickel boys by colson whitehead

By now wmtc readers, at least those who read my "what i'm reading" posts, know that Colson Whitehead is one of my favourite authors. I was so happy that he achieved breakthrough success with The Underground Railroad, winning both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award.

I've been reading him since his debut novel, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999. So when I tell you The Nickel Boys is his best work so far, trust me, this is high praise.

It tells a simple story of one boy's journey into the irrational, omnipresent, terror and violence of Jim Crow. The principal setting is a boys' "reform school" (so-called) in the segregated American South. The conditions and their effects will remind Canadian readers of the residential schools that Indigenous children were forced to endure.

It's disturbing to read, as it should be. The violence is not graphic -- most of it happens offstage -- but it's not hidden. It's everyday violence, and it's brought to us in everyday language.

What I love about The Nickel Boys is its restraint. It's a short book. The writing is spare, and precise. No wasted words. Everything simple but laden with meaning. Nothing is avoided, but nothing is adorned. Unsentimental, unsensational, unshocked. It's like a drumbeat -- like a heartbeat -- demanding we listen.

And what I love about The Nickel Boys is how the author trusts his story to do the work. One boy's story becomes a microcosm of a monstrous world.

Most people know that the US was segregated. But Jim Crow was much more pervasive than segregation. Many people said The Underground Railroad brought them closer to slavery than they had ever gone. The Nickel Boys does that for post-slavery America.

There's some suspense involved, so I won't go into any plot details. But here's a sample, after the time shifts closer to the present.
Chickie Pete and his trumpet. He might have played professionally, why not? A session man in a funk band, or an orchestra. If things had been different. The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses -- sure not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example was not solving special relativity -- but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.
Whitehead does some amazing things with language in this book. There's a word: agape. I know the concept from reading Martin Luther King. The book's main character thinks about agape, and about its seeming impossibility. Then later there's a word: agape. The character's mouth is agape. It's a tiny detail. I hope there are other close readers out there who will appreciate this.

Similarly, I have a note to myself, a scribble from a small spiral bound memo book. A character in The Intuitionist is allowed "to pass" -- meaning she can go through, pass the threshold. But pass has another meaning in African-American history: the light-skinned black people who "passed" as white. A twist of language, small and offhand, but packing so much meaning into a word. I love this stuff.

Meanwhile just read this book. Take the journey.

* * * *

Wmtc on Colson Whitehead:

Quotes from The Colossus of New York, here and here (published 2003; post from 2004)

Apex Hides the Hurt (published 2006; post from 2010)

I read Apex and was like, wait, this is by the guy who wrote that elevator book? And those NYC essays I went so crazy over? So I went back and read everything I'd missed.

John Henry Days (published 2001; post from 2012)

Sag Harbor (published 2009; post from 2012)

Zone One (published 2011; post from 2012)

The Underground Railroad (2016; post from 2016)

(I haven't yet read the nonfiction The Noble Hustle.)

I recommend any and all of these books. My only partial disclaimer is for John Henry Days. It's a very good book -- I loved it -- but it's a bit more opaque, more conceptual than the others. The rest I recommend wholeheartedly, including the zombie novel. You won't be disappointed.

This New York Times review of The Intuitionist concludes: "Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators, but if there's any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead's should be heading toward the upper floors."

I notice my 2012 post about John Henry Days includes wanting to re-read The Intuitionist. I never got around to it, so I'm going to do that now.


allan said...

In the extremely well-written and concise snip you quoted, I love "inventing shit that saves lives" in the middle. I can't really explain why it's so great - it's a perfect mixing of the literary and the colloquial, and it's not designed to pop out or dazzle your eyes or mind, though it grabbed my attention - but it's just one of the many reasons why Whitehead is such an amazing writer.

laura k said...

I love that about his writing, too.

wallythe24 said...

It's sad to say but until this post I'd not heard of Colson Whitehead ,so thanks for the heads up.



laura k said...

My work is done here.

Seriously, I'm very very happy to turn someone on to him.

Amy said...

I just finished The Nickel Boys and was blown away by it for all the reasons you mentioned. I had enjoyed The Underground Railroad, but found its mix of fantasy and reality somewhat distracting (As you probably remember, I am not a fantasy/sci fi person). I expected more of the same from this book, but recalled that you have said that each of his books is quite different in style as well as content. I absolutely loved this book (if loving something that is telling of something so horrific is possible or right). It did all the things great literature does---it created characters I deeply cared about, it provided insights into the lives of others whose lives are so different from my own and helped me understand and empathize, and it did it all in language that, as you wrote, was both simple and complex. Some of those images will stay with me forever as will the story of Elwood and Turner.

laura k said...

Amy, thank you SO much for sharing this. I'm really happy to hear it.

Perhaps you will share these impressions on Facebook too.

I don't read Sci Fi or Fantasy but I do love Magic Realism, which is how I would characterize The Underground Railroad. But the straight-ahead realism of The Nickel Boys is perfect.

Amy said...

How do you definte Magic Realism as different from fantasy and/or science fiction? I think I know what you mean based on The Underground Railroad, but I am not sure I'd be able to apply that distinction to other works.

Do you mean add my comment to your post about the book or my own post? I could do either or both. :)

laura k said...

Magic Realism takes place in the real world, and real world things happen, but there is an element of something that is not realistic, and a bit fantastical. The Underground Railroad fits squarely in this genre.

Fantasy takes place in a fictional universe. It normally includes "world-building" -- internal history, rules, mores, and so on. There are often elements of magic and the supernatural.

Science Fiction usually involves speculative technology in an imagined future.

There are tons of subgenres, and there is overlap, of course. But these are general guides.

Thanks for letting me be a librarian here! :)

Facebook, I think your own post (please tag me) would be great. I think my post on The Nickel Boys is too long ago. But if you'd rather add a comment to that thread, that would be good, too!

laura k said...

Examples of Magic Realism:
The Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (one of my all-time favourite books)
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (my introduction to this genre)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Beloved by Toni Morrison

laura k said...

^^ Winter's Tale. Not The Winter's Tale.

Amy said...

Thanks for the definitions and examples. I guess I am not a Magic Realism fan---I have not read the first or third of the books you listed and did not love the other two. Both in literature and movies/television, I tend to prefer realism. As a child that was less true---I loved books like The Phantom Tollbooth and Charlotte's Web and could easily suspend disbelief. But as I lost that childhood innocence, I lost the ability to suspend disbelief to the degree it would take for me to get fully immersed in a book or movie. So, for example, as much as I enjoyed The Underground Railroad or movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was always one step removed, very much aware that I was experiencing art, not fully engaged emotionally. My brother recently recommended the TV show The Good Place; we watched two episodes and found it cute, but annoying.