Robert Wilder’s debut young adult novel Nickel follows two best friends, Coy and Monroe, through ninth grade at Red Rocks Junior High, where they are misfits who find comfort in a shared ’80s obsession. Both are thrust into complicated circumstances that spotlight their insecurities around trust and self-image: Coy lives uncomfortably with his step-dad while his mother goes through rehab at a mental institution; Monroe suffers a mysterious rash encircling her mouth from the nickel in her braces. When her sickness worsens into something much more serious, Coy gets a new girlfriend, putting a strain on their friendship. Nickel is messy, shrouded in the image it wants to project. But at its core is a wrenching story about uncertainty and anger.
Wilder takes a risk with his main characters, choosing to narrate from the perspective of a blatantly offensive white male. The rest of the YA world has recently seen an influx of progressive, likeable role models. Coy and Monroe use a lot of derogatory language in their casual conversations: the popular overachiever Elizabeth Buchanan is a ridiculed as a “lezzie”; homeschooled kids are “homo-schooled” and “like the Amish, only even less deodorant”; an Asian receptionist nicknamed “Chinese Trinity” speaks “whatever the hell brand of Chinese or Vulcan.” These are few of many.
The novel is densely packed with this kind of language as its humor, and it feels a bit tagged on and distracting. Wilder aims to invoke a style of character akin to Salinger’s, and Holden Caulfield is a classic voice that easily insulted women, gays, and Catholics. But rather than letting it be intrinsic to his characters, something for them to reflect on and grow from, Wilder’s derogatory humor feels like it’s there just to be there. It isn’t funny or raw, just disappointing.
In her famous review of Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, Roxane Gay brings to light how women are often intimately aware of the gender they are expected to perform, and how that performance traps them. In Nickel, Monroe is that green girl. She is venomous and snarling in her desperate rejection of what the world expects a teen girl should be. And yet, both unknowingly and knowingly, she conforms.
Wilder creates heartbreaking complexity with Monroe, framed by Coy’s own fear and affection for his friend, which he struggles to express. She is brash, even cruel in her treatment of Coy and her peers, attempting to advertise a rougher, uglier version of herself. She is bullied and she bullies back. Forced to wear a white full-body suit to school, Monroe marches past the wandering eyes and whispers with nothing but a nasty eye-roll.
But this is also a girl who constantly attempts to cover up the rash around her mouth with her hands, who becomes jealous and resentful of Coy’s girlfriend, who is fiercely protective over her ’80s obsession. In a particularly terrific scene, Coy’s step-dad compliments Monroe on getting her braces off, completely blindsiding Coy into realizing that not only the metal wires are gone, but she has curled her hair for the occasion as well. Like any other girl, Monroe aches to be beautiful and normal. Wilder spares no expense detailing the unattractiveness of her growing rash and peeling skin. Stripped of control, seemingly abandoned by Coy, her rage and vulnerability are the most compelling, candid aspect of the narrative.
Nickel is a book about celebrating uncertainty. Coy and Monroe are stuck in so many in-betweens. They often use cynicism to cope, searching for answers where there are none. But they have a choice about how to approach the unknown. They don’t need blind hope. They don’t need contempt, either. They can use something halfway, something redefined. A kind of resilience, on their terms.
“Not yet?” I thought about Monroe. Not yet? I thought about me. “Is that good enough?”
“It has to be.”
Bound to divide readers, Nickel shines underneath layers of clunky dialogue and not-quite eccentricity. Wilder’s writing is genuine, if a little unwieldy, and he portrays adolescence as properly gripping and bittersweet amid a ruthless world.