Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys obviously has much to recommend it. A gripping tale about an African American youth trying to come of age amid the southern, early-1960s-version of American white supremacy, it represents a powerful addition to Whitehead’s oeuvre and to African American literature and American literature overall. Told in a sparse style, the novel is nonetheless richly allusive and artfully introduces you to its family. As in almost any novel by Morrison or Reed, an artifact of language is central, in this case the album Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, which was recorded in 1962. The record, given as a gift to the protagonist Elwood Curtis, becomes a refrain---excerpts are featured at least eight times---and dictates some of the character’s most important decisions. King’s moral vision largely becomes Elwood’s, though, ironically, trapped unjustly in the horrifying nexus of the penal institution that is the Nickel Academy, the teenage Elwood is assassinated before King. The gift may have been a curse.
Other gestures of lineage include nods to Invisible Man, especially the boxing matches and the painting of the gazebo at the Davis home as part of “community service.” For the latter task: “The brand of paint was Dixie, the color Dixie White.” Of course, it would have to be that way for a Davis (same surname as the president of the Confederacy, as the Richmond Hotel in the novel suggests the capital of the Confederacy). These scenes connect to the Battle Royal episode and the Optic White choice at Liberty Paints. The concern for a proper burial, for being spoken for and heard, is a major aspect of the novel’s ending, as it is in Song of Solomon and Home.
One pleasure of the text lies in its foreshadowing. That Denise watches The Defiant Ones, a movie about prison escapees, is the set up for the recounting of Turner and Elwood’s escape. That Turner (freedom-seeking Nat?) has assumed Elwood’s identity is signaled by his refusal to answer to the name Elwood and his cutting off contact with a fellow Nickel boy that he encounters in New York. He certainly couldn’t give Chickie Pete a business card with Elwood’s name on it. Also, an attentive reader realizes that this version of Elwood has become a smoker. Turner always was. We have enough reasons to be suspicious before the big reveal.
The most stunning maneuver in the book is the seemingly simple sentence, “Elwood panted, his mouth agape.” This occurs while Elwood and Turner are running through a field, right before Elwood is gunned down by a pursuer. The sentence, however, is far from simple. Agape (uh GAYP), derived from the old Norse gapa, describes Elwood’s wide-open mouth, a mouth from which words, because of the hatred of others, will no longer flow. The word is spelled the same as agape (ah GAh pay), which is derived from agapê, a Greek word for a type of love. In other words, the lexical items are heteronyms in English, spelled the same but pronounced differently. It is precisely the second agape that King discusses at length, a fact Whitehead incorporates into the story:
He [Elwood] remembered looking up agape in his encyclopedia volume after he read Dr. King’s speech in the Defender. The newspaper ran the address in full after the reverend’s appearance at Cornell College. If Elwood had come across the word before, through all those years skipping around the book, it hadn’t stuck in his head. King described agape as a divine love operating in the heart of man. A selfless love, an incandescent love, the highest there is. He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side of the struggle.
Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now.
But when Elwood recalled King’s words in detail---Do to us what you will and we will still love you---he considered it an impossible thing to ask. Yet King’s words continue to haunt him. At his lowest point, beaten again and locked in solitary confinement, he ponders the proposition: Throw us in jail and we will still love you . . . But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory. Ultimately, Elwood, who is about to find out that he has been slated for execution, decides he cannot practice agape as King describes it. He is then sprung from his cell by Turner (freedom-seeking Nat?), and the two flee the institution.
“His mouth agape” is no casual selection. It is bitter irony carefully chosen. The other agape suggested. And it could not save Elwood.