Tag Archives: Colson Whitehead

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, author of Sag Harbor (reviewed here) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad, is a novel about a depressing episode in American history: the corrupt management of a reform school for boys in 1960s Tallahassee and the rampant racism that scarred decades of its inhabitants.

Elwood Curtis, an African-American high school student in Florida, is serious, principled and ambitious. He lives with his grandmother, having been abandoned by his parents, and spends his time working, listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches and aspiring to go to college. He ends up being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thanks to institutional racism, finds himself sentenced to a year at Nickel Academy.

Any hope that Nickel will actually further Elwood’s education is dashed when he gets there and starts to grasp the cruelty and injustice with which the school is governed. White and black boys are separated, with black boys receiving fewer resources and investment. The white administrators abuse the kids – physically, mentally and sexually – and, as the book hints at in the preface, cover up the “accidental” deaths of students whose families are told simply that they disappeared.

Whitehead’s writing style, one of understatement and quiet devastation, is on full display in The Nickel Boys. It’s not a long book, but it’s one you have to read slowly, so as not to miss a word. The violence is there, but it’s neither gratuitous nor overdone. Instead, Colson writes about it matter-of-factly, which I found made it even more impactful. I read The Nickel Boys with a low level of dread at all times. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; it just means that there is always the potential for something bad to happen (and it often does). That’s the reality of life at Nickel Academy.

The Nickel Boys is a harrowing read, but definitely worth the experience. There are also some twists and turns that kept me guessing until the end. Nicole Bonia and I recorded a book club discussion of The Nickel Boys for The Readerly Report podcast, which will air Thursday, October 31. (I’ll add a link when it’s live.)

SAG HARBOR by Colson Whitehead

Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead, got a lot of press when it came out in 2009. It ended up on a lot of “best of” lists that year, and I’ve been interested in it ever since. I finished it today – listened to it mostly on audio but also read the paper version too. I have very conflicting feelings about the book.

Sag Sag Harbor is narrated by Benji, a fifteen year-old boy spending the summer at Sag Harbor, an African-American community on Long Island, at his parents’ beach house. Benji and Reggie, his younger brother, were inseparable as kids, but have grown apart, and their parents only come out to the beach house on weekends, leaving the boys alone from Sunday to Thursday. Sag Harbor is a memoir of that 80s summer of Benji’s fifteen year, and his friendships, his feelings about himself and his family, and his transition into adulthood. I always love a good coming-of-age story, which is why I was drawn to Sag Harbor. But like I said above, I had mixed feelings about it.

Whitehead is a beautiful writer. Breathtaking at times. His use of metaphor and description are masterful. Here’s a passage I loved:

It is the nettlesome quality of elementary-school pictures to reveal the true nature of our childhoods. Nothing is how we remember it, and all the necessary alterations we’ve made in order to survive with semi-functioning psyches are exposed. Best to leave them alone.

There are so many phrases and sentences I could highlight in this post – I can’t understate how good of a craftsman Whitehead is.

But.

It took me so long to get through Sag Harbor because there is simply no plot. No narrative tension. While the book loosely tracks Benji’s summer, there are pages after pages of description and detail that don’t really go anywhere. The book is like an Impressionist painting – you get a textured glimpse of Benji’s life and the history of Sag Harbor, but at any moment your eye could really be anywhere on the canvas with no discernable direction. This meandering, almost indulgent pace made reading the book a chore. And the audio version was even worse – I found my mind wandering many times while I listened, with the narrative fading into background noise. Without a structure, something driving me forward, I was simply pulled along by the momentum of the pages turning, instead of tension or suspense or plot.

I considered giving up on the book many times, but I stuck it out. And I was richly rewarded by a final chapter that was so poignant that I was almost moved to tears. (Like I said, I am deeply ambivalent about this book.) During Benji’s fifteenth summer, he comes to see his parents for who they are – an alcoholic and a submissive – and grows apart from his brother and absentee sister. Whitehead’s older, wiser narrator  – looking back on his younger, awkward self – deeply conveys that combination of sadness and liberation that comes from the distancing from one’s roots. Check out this passage, about an end-of-summer Labor Day picnic that Benji is attending for likely the last time:

We were all there. It was where we mingled with who we had been and who we would be.  Sharing space with our echoes out in the sun. The shy kid we used to be and were growing away from, the confident or hard-luck men we would become in our impending seasons, the elderly survivors we’d grow into if we were lucky, with gray stubble and green sun visors.  The generations replacing and replenishing each other. Every summer this shifting-over took place in small degrees as you moved closer to the person who was waiting for you to catch up and some younger version of yourself elbowed you out of the way.

Wow. The chore of the first 250 pages were almost worth the last 30 pages.

So those are my jumbled thoughts about Sag Harbor. If you decide to read it, go into it with your eyes open.

Yo! FTC! Audiobook was from the library and paper version was bought at a used book sale.

SAG HARBOR by Colson Whitehead

I apologize for being away from the blog for a while. My twins turned 5 last week and we had a big party for them on Saturday, so I've been a bit out of commission! But I'm back.

On Wednesday, Politics & Prose (Washington DC) is having an author event with Colson Whitehead, author of Sag Harbor.

From Amazon:

Sagharbor The year is 1985 and 15-year-old Benji Cooper, one of the only black students at his elite Manhattan private school, leaves the city to spend three largely unsupervised months living with his younger brother Reggie in an enclave of Long Island's Sag Harbor, the summer home to many African American urban professionals. Benji's a Converse-wearing, Smiths-loving, Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd whose favorite Star Wars character is the hapless bounty hunter Greedo (rather than the double-crossing Lando Calrissian). But Sag Harbor is a coming-of-age novel whose plot side-steps life-changing events writ large. The book's leisurely eight chapters mostly concern Benji's first kiss, the removal of braces, BB gun battles, slinging insults (largely unprintable "grammatical acrobatics") with his friends, and working his first summer job. And Whitehead crafts a wonderful set piece describing Benji's days at Jonni Waffle Ice Cream, where he is shrouded in "waffle musk" and a dirty T-shirt that's "soiled, covered with batter and befudged from a sundae mishap."

Whitehead pushes his love of pop culture into hyper-drive. Nearly every page is swimming with references to the 1980s–from New Coke and The Cosby Show to late nights trying to decipher flickering glimpses of naked women on scrambled Cinemax. And music courses through the book, capturing that period when early hip hop mixed with New Wave. Lisa Lisa and U.T.F.O make a memorable cameo at Jonni Waffle, and McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"–heard throughout the book in passing cars and boom boxes–gets tagged as "the black national anthem." Like that ubiquitous song, the soulful, celebratory, and painfully funny Sag Harbor and its chronicle of those lazy, sun-soaked days sandwiched between Memorial Day and Labor Day, will stick with you long after closing its covers.

This New York Times review liked the book, saying:

Sag Harbor isn’t about much more than the hilariously trifling intricacies of this self-discovery process. Credit Mr. Whitehead with this: He captures the fireflies of teenage summertime in a jar without pretending to have some larger purpose. Sag Harbor is not a book about that special summer when everything changed, when this boy became a man, when the scales fell from his eyes about adult life, or even about when he experienced the balmy joys of first love. Its plot is so evanescent that the removal of Benji’s braces counts as a milestone.

And here's The Week's roundup of reviews:

The 15-year-old protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s new novel knows that the world has trouble categorizing him, said Adam Mansbach in The Boston Globe. Benji Cooper spends nine months a year in a mostly white Manhattan prep school and his summers hanging with other middle-class, African-American kids in a Long Island, N.Y., beach enclave established by their grandfathers. Though “little actually happens” in Benji’s life during the summer of ’85, his reminiscences about it add up to Whitehead’s “most enjoyable” novel to date. “Warm and funny” and “beautifully written,” Sag Harbor makes Benji’s riffs on slang, New Coke, and bad pop music matter because they show him “finessing a workable identity.” Unfortunately, Whitehead’s taste for “indistinct” heroes worked better in earlier novels, said Greil Marcus in Bookforum. Here, it means even Benji’s cleverest riffs don’t give readers enough reason to continue. But that astute voice can be reason enough, said Gene Seymour in Newsday. “If you know in advance” that Sag Harbor is faithful to the uneventful spirit of most teenage summers, its languorous pleasures should win you over.

Reviews across the Interwebs are mixed but mostly positive. There are a lot of posts eagerly anticipating the book. If I make it to the reading, I will report back. In the meantime – any EDIWTB readers out there who have read this and want to comment?