‘The Nickel Boys’

Colson Whitehead’s Swift, Brutish Followup to ‘The Underground Railroad’

It’s the 1960s. Elwood Curtis is a young, naive black man with his head in the clouds and a Martin Luther King LP spinning on repeat on his mental hi-fi. He can’t win.

A dishwashing race against a fellow restaurant employee for a set of abandoned encyclopedias? Most of those books were blank, and everyone in the kitchen knew before the race was set. Except for him. An opportunity to take a course for college credit, and a driver willing to get him there as a hitcher? It turns out that driver stole the car, and the cops charged Elwood as an accessory. Big annual boxing match between white and black champions at the nightmare reform school to which the courts ship him off? That shit is fixed. It’s all a sham. Bettors clean up tidily.

The Underground Railroad was Colson Whitehead’s ultra-goth historical fiction mash-note to those heroes and heroines offering escape routes away from American slavery, and to all seeking safe passage. It’s a book that leaves a mark.


The Nickel Boys is a swift, brutish book that’s equally worthy of your attention. It fast-forwards from slavery to the prison-industrial complex, New Jim Crow-style. Based on the history of the Dozier School for Boys, the fictional Nickel Academy pays lip service to moral redemption and scholarly excellence while essentially turning its charges into something less than indentured servants. Standard prison narrative tropes apply here, interspersed with dashes of hope and tradition-based pride, which makes for a chilling, bittersweet read.

At times, though, it’s unclear how it should make one feel. The Nickel Boys traces the exploits of idealistic Curtis and his pals indifferent Desmond and cynical Turner as they struggle to pay debts to society without running afoul of corrupt, merciless authorities. There’s a sense throughout that the place itself–a separate but unequal abattoir with blacks on one side and whites on the other–will claim, corrupt, and crush their souls. That reactionary discomfort is likely part of the point. It’s a short distance from The Nickel Boys to something like Anthony Ray Hinton’s bracing The Sun Does Shine.

A novel is a version of an imagined truth, a myth almost by necessity. Whitehead plays a game with his audience in this regard. Serious and dedicated readers of fiction throughout the ages will appreciate what he’s doing. Throughout, Whitehead has scribbled questions between the typeset lines: in a world that was fallen even before we found ourselves here, is there any real value in forthrightness and nobility? Is the purity of an impossible ideal, Platonic or otherwise, worth celebrating and preserving? When you’re born with the socio-political deck stacked against you, is it possible to win? The answer appears to be no.

(Doubleday, July 16, 2019)

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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings lives in Owings Mills, Maryland. A 1999 graduate of Washington College, he is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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