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Literary Glance: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

May 17, 2020

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is kind of noteworthy because it’s Whitehead’s second Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  Winning two Pulitzers is a pretty decent accomplishment.   If you write one Pulitzer Prize winning book (his first was The Underground Railroad in 2017), anything you write after that will get publicized.  If you win two Pulitzer Prizes, you’re at great risk of being treated like a literary deity.

I actually feel a little bad for Colson Whitehead because a lot of literary people are going to start freaking out around him.  Whenever he says something slightly clever, they will laugh hysterically.  Whenever he says something slightly insightful, his audience will grunt in unified agreement.  It’s not Whitehead’s fault that people act like this.  It’s not Whitehead’s fault that he’s written two Pulitzer Prize winning novels.

The good news for Colson Whitehead is that most people still don’t know what he looks like.  He’s not like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling; outside of a few snooty literary circles, he can go anywhere he wants without being disturbed.

I still wonder, though, what does it take to get Pulitzer to notice your book (other than having won one already)?  What does it take to win a Pulitzer?    Since I’m just reading a free sample (I’m a cheap bastard during the abbreviated horror), I decided to focus just on the beginning of The Nickel Boys.  I wanted to see what would make The Nickel Boys look like a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The prologue focuses on the history of a villainous boy’s school.  It’s an evil place, almost unrealistically evil, but that’s okay because unrealistically evil things happen in real life.  After the villainous Nickel school is established, chapter one starts with a boy named Ellwood (who was briefly mentioned as an adult in the prologue):

So here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1, which starts providing details about Elwood:

Elwood received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.  Martin Luther King at Zion Hill was the only album he owned and it never left the turntable.  His grandmother Harriet had a few gospel records, which she only played when the world discovered a new mean way to work on her, and Elwood wasn’t allowed to listen to the Motown groups or popular songs like that on account of their licentious nature.  The rest of his presents that year were clothes- a new red sweater, socks-and he certainly wore those out, but nothing endured such good and constant use as the record.  Every scratch and pop it gathered over the months was a mark of his enlightenment, tracking each time he entered into a new understanding of the reverend’s words.  The crackle of the truth.

Yeah, this paragraph is solid, but it’s nothing noteworthy by itself.  This chapter establishes Elwood as a sympathetic young man but with some issues.  The readers know something bad is going to happen, especially after the foreshadowing of the first sentence and the prologue setting up the villainous boys’ school.  I’m also guessing the readers will see Elwood later in the book as an adult dealing with the trauma from the time at Nickel, probably searching (and finding) other boys from the school.

I foresee trauma, lots and lots of trauma.  Hopefully, The Nickel Boys won’t be melotraumatic.  Trauma is bad, but melo-traumatic is really bad.

The Nickel Boys so far doesn’t read like literary fiction.  A lot of literary authors seem to try too hard by writing overly complicated sentences and overusing stream-of-consciousness.  Colson Whitehead hasn’t done this yet.  It might happen.  I think the Pulitzer committee requires a certain amount of stream-of-consciousness in a novel before it can be considered, so it must be in there somewhere.

The Nickel Boys doesn’t have any obvious gimmicks right away.  Most Pulitzer Prize winning novels have a unique gimmick or a set of gimmicks that enhance (from the judges’ points of view) the story.  By gimmick, I mean overdone literary device.  Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Overstory was told from the perspective of trees.  It was interesting but still a gimmick.  The gimmick in the novel Less was a loser whose name was… ugh… I’m not even getting into it.  A Visit from the Goon Squad flipped points-of-view and verb tenses throughout each chapter.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao inundated the reader with pop culture references (that are probably outdated now).

The Nickel Boys doesn’t seem to have any gimmicks yet.  That doesn’t mean it won’t have any later on.  That’s good because obvious gimmicks are annoying, and they’re even worse when awards committees fall for them.  Hopefully the novel doesn’t get melotraumatic.  I hate melo-trauma.  But so far it’s at least good enough to keep reading.  It feels like a normal book.  That’s good because if I ever meet Colson Whitehead, I want to act like he’s a normal person.


What do you think?  Have you read The Nickel Boys?  What qualities made it a Pulitzer-winning book?  How bad will literature fanboys freak out around Colson Whitehead now that he’s been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction?

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