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‘The Nickel Boys’ hauntingly brilliant

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There are good books. There are great books. And then there are books that are … more.

Books that marry deft, propulsive prose with potent, stomach-punch emotions and meticulously-conceived characters. Books that tell remarkable stories while simultaneously transcending the stories being told. Books that take hold of your brains and your guts with equally ironclad grips, demanding your attention and imagination.

Books like Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” (Doubleday, $24.95).

Whitehead has long been considered among the best of his writerly generation; his last offering – 2016’s “The Underground Railroad” – won the Pulitzer Prize, among many others. The staggering thing is this: he’s still getting better.

“The Nickel Boys” is Whitehead’s seventh book – and arguably his best yet. He eschews the genre flourishes with which his previous storytelling ventures have been peppered, instead committing to a straightforward realism that allows just the briefest glimmers of hopefulness against a nigh-unrelentingly bleak backdrop.

Elwood Curtis is a young black man living in segregated Tallahassee, Florida in the 1960s. He’s precocious; smart and hardworking and compassionate. He was abandoned by his parents, but he has grown up under the auspices of his grandmother’s loving ferocity. He is quietly inspired by the Civil Rights movement; the only record in the house is one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, worn away by countless relistening.

His is a bright future – until being in the wrong place at the wrong time leads to his being sent to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory whose admirable mission statement and public face hide the brutal truth. Behind the scenes, the Nickel Academy is a churning maelstrom of racism, sadism and opportunism, rife with physical and emotional abuse. The only way to get out is to keep your head down and get along.

Elwood’s struggles are lightened somewhat by Turner, a Nickel returnee whose understanding of the way things work is breathtakingly cynical … and largely accurate. The two boys become friends, each helping the other deal with the daily horrors that come with being beholden to a corrupt system that actively loathes everything about them.

Interspersed throughout, there are interludes of an older Elwood, reflecting on how the dark damages inflicted upon him and others by the Nickel Academy have followed him into adulthood, a constant shadowy companion that he has never and will never shake. And when news comes out about a particularly horrifying discovery on the grounds of the now-closed school, Elwood finds himself diving deeper into that past than he has in years … and there are still secrets yet to be revealed.

“The Nickel Boys” is one of the most emotionally fraught books I’ve read since … well, maybe ever. There’s a deeply unsettling verisimilitude to the Nickel Academy – no wonder, since Whitehead drew inspiration from a real place (The Dozier School for Boys, a Florida reformatory with a dark history of pain). By mining that reality, the book evokes a sense of truth that makes the events contained therein hit all the harder.

So much of Whitehead’s work involves race and how race impacts the American experience. Those themes are explored again in “The Nickel Boys,” albeit more directly than in past offerings. That directness lends even more heft to the already-meaty discourse he drives; it’s the sort of generational work that lands an author an honored place in the literary pantheon, though one could make the argument that Whitehead is a standard bearer for his generation of black writers and hence already has a spot. Still, after this one, he’s probably going to need to be moved up this list.

The slim volume comes in at just 224 pages, yet still overflows with furious poetry and intellectual rawness. It unspools with pacing that feels breakneck while also managing to elicit a sense of stasis; the whole thing practically drips with the frustrations of the societal status quo, even as we move back and forth through the years.

Words like “haunting” get tossed around a lot by critics – it serves as a handy shorthand term, even if it isn’t always totally accurate. In the case of “The Nickel Boys,” however, it could not be more apt. The injustices done to Elwood and Turner and their respective efforts to resist and rise against … those shadows linger. This story IS haunting, in more ways than one.

And of course, we have to recognize the narrative brilliance that Whitehead brings to the table. There’s a stunning vividity to his language; perhaps more than any other American writer, he has the ability to let the reader see through his eyes and hear through his ears. His is a finely-crafted and exquisitely-detailed vision – and thanks to his particular and considerable skills, we can experience it as fully realized.

It has been some time since a book inspired such strong reactions in me. We’re talking literal out-loud gasps; whether they were brought on by a particularly powerful phrase or a beautifully executed narrative turn, their impacts on me were audible.

Thought-provoking, powerful and shatteringly sad, “The Nickel Boys” is easily the best book of 2019 thus far … and it’s awfully tough to think that any other work will surpass it. It is a masterpiece, executed flawlessly by one of our most gifted writers. A worthwhile and magnificent addition to the 21st century canon … and the best yet in a career already rife with excellence.

There are good books. There are great books. And then there are books that are … more.

“The Nickel Boys” is more.

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