As with Colson Whitehead’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Underground Railroad,” the past is prologue in this follow-up to that novel, “The Nickel Boys.”
But just as certain in this important and impressive work, prologue is past ... and present and future.
“No one believed them until someone else said it,” Colson writes in the opening of his seventh work of fiction.
Left unsaid: Like so much else.
The horrors of sexual and physical abuse at this boys’ reformatory have been dramatized by Colson here, but they are based on a real institution, and also left unsaid — because, horribly, it doesn’t need to be said — is that this institution is not alone in its history of transforming boys into bitter and damaged men.
Our hero is an exception, a Nickel Boy “who went by the name of Elwood Curtis,” a man who wrestles with his demons but has managed as an adult to start and run a successful business, and more impressively, start and manage a successful relationship.
Colson isn’t known for withholding a punch and he holds back none here. While the novel doesn’t reach the Pulitzer quality of “Underground Railroad,” it comes close in relating the stories of those damned and subjected to the unforgiving evil of a penal institution for youths.
In this tale of sadism and barbarity, where men who are entrusted with reform and care “stored up violence like a battery,” Colson takes his readers on another important journey — one in which the view is dark but not distant, and one which portends a future we are wont to repeat if no one cares to look.