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Locked up, Locked out

Dan A O’Brien

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, Fleet Press, 213 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0708899434

In his influential 2015 essay “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that, in the American imagination, a long tradition of racism had made African Americans both “more than criminal and less than human”. In Colson Whitehead’s new novel The Nickel Boys, set in a juvenile institution in 1960s Florida and based on true events, the author breaks down this malicious equation.

Whitehead, now fifty, is one of America’s most compelling and innovative writers. In his new novel, one of the characters sees freedom as the ability to make one’s own “zig zag way”. There is no better description for Whitehead’s eclectic oeuvre, with each book veering away from the one before, and from one end of the realist/fantastical spectrum to the other. His 1999 debut, The Intuitionist, was a high-concept noir set in an alternative mid-century New York, where a new breed of elevator inspectors, including the young African American heroine, challenge the systematic failures of their predecessors (and where the rise and fall of the elevator provides an apt conceit for the turbulence of racial uplift). Whitehead followed this with John Henry Days (2001), which delved into race and masculinity, using the “true” myth of the eponymous African American folk hero, who reputedly outperformed a steel driving machine during the tunnel construction boom of the 1880s, thus gaining an unlikely immortality.

In his 2006 satire Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead took the commercialisation of language and the erasure of history in America as his central themes, with an African American “nomenclature consultant” brought in to help rebrand a town (first called Freedom by its free slave founders, then Winthrop during the era of white backlash) with a name unanchored from the past. The autobiographical Sag Harbour (2009), dredged up the author’s own early life to create a coming-of-age story, set in a wealthy African American seaside enclave in the 1980s. As if to counter this shift towards the real, in 2011 Whitehead swung back towards the strange with Zone One, a revivified take on the zombie genre.

Five years later, Whitehead published his magnum opus: The Underground Railroad. In it, the author conjures up a world where the “Underground Railroad” (a metaphor for multifarious routes American slaves used to escape the slave-owning South) becomes an actual entity, a subterranean line that criss-crosses Whitehead’s own peculiar version of the pre-bellum United States. The book tracks Cora as she flees her Georgia plantation on the railroad and makes her zig zag way North, experiencing as she goes how different states attempt to answer the “Negro Question” ‑ ranging from partial manumission to genocide. Whitehead masterfully draws not only on the pernicious concepts that reinforced American slavery, but on those of British colonialism and Nazi ideology as well, suggesting, as Hannah Arendt does in The Origins of Totalitarianism, that all are interlinked.

The Underground Railroad is interspersed with actual historical runaway slave adverts, which, though true, rank as some of the most incredible elements in the novel: “[30 dollar reward offered for] a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl, and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn”. With this device, Whitehead attacks the dark heart of American consumerism ‑ slavery after all being the ultimate expression of a world where everything has a price. As Whitehead’s friend Coates writes in his own new magical realist novel on slavery, The Water Dancer (2019), which owes much to The Underground Railroad: “For this was a time in our history, when the most valuable thing a man could own in America, was another man.”

The black body was ploughed and furrowed and broken not only by physical forces, but by ideas. In The Underground Railroad science and knowledge are not objective spheres, but are instead twisted to promulgate white supremacy and black degeneracy. Here again, Whitehead draws not from his wild imagination, but from authentic American history, in which, for instance, runaway slaves were diagnosed with drapetomania, a madness that made them flee the kind ownership of their masters for the unknown horrors of freedom. In the book, one of the characters reclaims both her body and science from these perversions: “She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. [She] made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations.”

The Underground Railroad pays tribute to the seminal texts of the early African American canon, particularly Frederick Douglass’s Narrative (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). In one state, where African Americans have been exterminated, Cora is forced to hide in an attic ‑ with echoes both of Jacobs’s life and Anne Frank’s ‑ where her only window on the world is a peephole looking onto the town square where the public executions take place. Through his contorted vision, Whitehead forces readers to look anew at America, both past and present. As that other great American writer of confinement Emily Dickenson put it: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Nickel Boys is, in many ways, a very different book from The Underground Railroad, returning Whitehead once more to the realm of realism. Yet beneath the surface ‑ what elsewhere the author calls “the skin of things” ‑ both books revolve around ideas of violence, control, and the corruption of human systems. Elwood, the novel’s idealistic, civil-rights-inspired, college-bound protagonist, is sentenced to one year at Nickel Academy because he has thumbed a lift in a stolen car. Other African American boys are there for even less obvious crimes: “malingering, mopery, incorrigibility”, “bumptious behavior”. The staff are almost uniformly vicious towards their young charges: “The boys were called students, rather than inmates, to distinguish them from the violent offenders that populated prisons. All the violent offenders … were on the staff.” It is in the exposing of these appalling ironies of American life that the resonance with The Underground Railroad can be most clearly felt: “[the slave catchers were] men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.”

At the centre of both the campus and the novel lies the “White House”, an old laundry in which boys are taken for punishment when a regularly sanctioned beating will not suffice.

If the name appears overburdened with symbolism, once again Whitehead has plucked it not from some flight of fancy but from the real life torture room of the Florida reformatory on which Nickel Academy is based (the Dozier School for Boys). In both fact and fiction, recalcitrant youths deemed impervious to these White House beatings are taken “out back” where they are whipped to death. Even the boys who escape this physical destruction suffer it in the mind’s eye, as they listen to the screams of their comrades: “the hearing was seeing, too, in bright strokes across the mind’s canvas”.

Elwood is taken under the wing of Turner, a streetwise older boy, who “bobbed in his own pocket of calm”. The cynical Turner attempts to strip Elwood of his idealism, so that he might survive the brutal reality of Nickel. Despite this tutelage, the warden brings Elwood to the White House and subjects him to a ferocious beating to rid him of his notions of college and advancement. It is here, and not in Nickel’s barren classrooms, that Elwood learns the real lessons of the place: “Violence is the only lever big enough to move the world.” Following his long recovery, Elwood is assigned to Community Service, a front for Nickel management to sell the school’s supplies and hire out students for work, where he finally learns Turner’s lesson: “the new lens popped into place and all it permitted him to see”.

The Nickel Boys is not just a commentary on incarceration in America but on America itself: “The country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless ... This was just one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories.” And if Nickel is a microcosm of America, Elwood is a kind of Everyman. If his fate seems too perfectly designed to suit the novel’s purpose ‑ prize student wrongly imprisoned by corrupt system ‑ Whitehead keeps one last twist in store that forces the reader to reassess all that has gone before.

While The Nickel Boys has none of the obvious magic of The Underground Railroad, there is the more subtle enchantment of an author at the height of his powers conjuring up whole lives in a scattering of sentences: “Wilson stayed on his feet to prove his worth to his father. Wilson had two bouts going, the one everybody could see and the one only he could. His father had been dead for years and was thus unable to revise his assessment of his first born son’s character, but that night Wilson slept without nightmares for the first time in years.” The author makes unapologetic and daring use of an omniscient narrator, with the narrative eye free to roam not only from head to head, but from century to century too, as when it leaves Elwood and Turner fleetingly to consider the indentured black servants who had inhabited their room fifty years before: “When the moon was full, the boys had stood on the cot and gazed upon its milky eye through the single cracked window.” Such intrusive commentary is very much out of fashion in contemporary literature and thus all the more fascinating to witness.

It could be argued that while Coates has moved from the realism of journalistic reportage on prisons in “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration” to a magical slavery narrative in The Water Dancer, Whitehead has travelled in the other direction, from The Underground Railroad and its overt wonders to the hyperrealism of this reformatory exposé. However, both authors are at pains to show that slavery and the American penal system are two sides of the same, unfinished, story. Again and again, these bright stars in the constellation of American literature are essentially probing the same paradox: how can America be both the land of freedom and slavery; of the Bill of Rights and drapetomania?

1/10/2019

Dan O’Brien’s book Fine Meshwork: Philip Roth, Edna O’Brien and Jewish-Irish Literature was published this year by Syracuse University.

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