The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

Fiction, 210 pages

I taught high school for six years. I had the privilege and challenge of teaching Letter From Birmingham City Jail by Dr. King each semester. Dr. King’s letter is a war cry for non-violent resistance: Why should someone resist breaking laws when Dr. King, himself, was in jail from breaking laws? He explains that there are two kinds of laws: just and unjust; unjust laws are no laws at all.

Colson Whitehead’s ninth novel deals with the later type of laws. How do we live in a society that hurts young people? How do we love those who jail us? Rape? Assault? Ruin for life? There’s no simple answer to this core conflict.

The novel is split into three even sections. I found the final third the most convincing: How do we go on living a meaningful life after trauma—if at all?

If you are a fan of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, then you will probably enjoy this novel. There are plenty of moments in The Nickel Boys that echoed Ellison’s classic text.

To be honest, I thought the novel was a bit rushed. There were many moments where I felt like I was being told a story I’d rather see fleshed out on the page. I think this would have worked at 400, or 500 pages.

Also, the tone seemed cool to me, distant, calm. The third person POV was fine, but the most intense scenes of the novel seemed toned down, sanitized.

Despite these reservations, I still enjoyed this novel much more than Underground Railroad. The Nickel Boys reminds me of Whitehead’s early novel, John Henry Days—it hovers between fiction and documentary.

I’m always glad for any offering from Mr. Whitehead and I strongly encourage you to check out his complete canon.