Colson Whitehead has won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his 2019 novel Nickel Boys. The win comes just three years after Whitehead won the Prize for his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, making Whitehead the fourth writer ever to have won the Pulitzer for fiction twice.
The last time Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize, in April 2017, the award served as the crown jewel in a months-long coronation. The Underground Railroad, in which an enslaved woman makes a magical-realism-inflected journey out of the antebellum south, was easily 2016’s book of the year. In September of 2016, it became the inaugural book in the then-latest edition of Oprah’s Book Club. Shortly thereafter, Barry Jenkins signed on to direct the TV adaptation. In November, it won the National Book Award.
But this year’s prizewinner, Nickel Boys, is a quieter and less showy book than The Underground Railroad. And it’s not the consensus pick of 2019 in quite the same way its predecessor was.
Like The Underground Railroad, Nickel Boys is about a real-life atrocity. In this case, it deals with a hellish Florida reform school — historically called the Dozier School for Boys, here renamed Nickel Academy — at which boys who’d been convicted of petty crimes were systematically tortured: starved, beaten, raped, and shot. Nearly 100 boys between the ages of 6 and 18 died at the Dozier School for Boys between 1900 and 1973.
Boys of all races attended the school, but it was strictly segregated, and everything was worse for the black kids. In Nickel Boys, Whitehead delves into the story of two black students at Nickel Academy. One of them is deeply principled and believes Nickel to be a violation of the moral laws of the universe. The other is a survivor who will do what it takes to get out of Nickel alive. In spite of themselves, they become best friends.
Part of what made The Underground Railroad so compelling was its elements of surrealism. In that novel, the Underground Railroad is a literal train, and as the protagonist travels out of the South, she also seems to travel through time. But Nickel Boys contains no similar genre breaks; it’s a straightforward realist novel with a clean three-act structure, and although there is a twist, it’s the kind of twist that’s well within the realm of normal for this sort of literary fiction.
And although Nickel Boys was well-reviewed, it didn’t become inescapable in the way The Underground Railroad did. It won the Kirkus Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, but it wasn’t a finalist for the National Book Award. Nor was it an Oprah pick.
Whitehead’s second Pulitzer, then, is less a coronation of Nickel Boys and more a coronation of Whitehead himself. In becoming a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Whitehead is breathing rarified air known only to Faulkner, Updike, and Booth Tarkington (not all Pulitzer choices stand the test of time). He’s become a veritable literary statesman. The world is waiting to see what he’ll do next.
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