Nickel is a survivor. Raised by the state in abusive foster homes, he escapes at the age of ten to live his life the way his father wanted him to: not as a civilian, but as a warrior. Nickel pays his way by blackmailing pedophiles he tracks down online, selling marijuana to high school students, and working as a private investigator in between. Money talks, but for kids, Nickel works for free.
This time, it’s Arrow, a beautiful high school girl, who needs help. She believes that her sister Shelby was kidnapped, even though her parents and the police have written her off as a runaway. Nickel takes the case, scouring the internet and the posh suburban streets to find the missing girl. What he uncovers are children for sale and adults with souls black as the devil. Soon Nickel realizes that finding Shelby is one thing — but surviving is another.
The first thing to note about this book is that there is rather obviously a suspension of belief required. Whether you think it likely that a twelve-year-old kid could live on his own, you have to accept the premise to a certain degree and just let the story develop. I think if you do that you can enjoy the novel.
At the very least you can appreciate the unique style and perspective the book brings; and its willingness to tackle difficult subjects without over-sentimentalizing or simplifying them.
I think Booklist captured this well:
Writing with a deaf ear to what’s fashionable in YA, Davis’ terseness initially comes off like hardboiled spoof and risks alienating readers with its steadfastly unemotional tone. Almost slyly, though, Nickel’s one-note voice becomes affecting; read between the lines and you’ll find a damaged kid whose defense mechanism is to be a crime-fighting robot. As dark as they get, Nickel’s travails are often laugh-out-loud funny: he’s got his plan, and he’s sticking to it. Readers will, too, right through the pulse-pounding climax and the crushingly offhand sadness of the denouement. Davis hits hard–but with a surprisingly light touch.
That said, I can understand if you can’t get over the fact that the main character is 12. The plausibility of his actions, the maturity of his vocabulary and ability to handle seemingly everything strains the story at practically every turn. It is the main drawback of the story and some reviewers clearly couldn’t get past it.
The other problem is the audience for such a book. It is not a book for kids given its subject matter and the actions of the protagonist. But you wonder if older teens will want to read a book about a character who is 12. And with adults you have the believability factor and worries about a young person living on their own, selling pot, etc.
But with all of those caveats, and the fact this is the author’s debut novel, I think there are things to appreciate about Nickel Plated. As noted above by Booklist, the main character and his voice grows on you. It has that noir detective feel but with the twist of being a kid version. There is a dry black humor behind everything and it makes for a fascinating read in many ways.
I also like the way the book forces you to think about what it might be like to live on your own as a young person. What would it take to provide for yourself; to shop for food, interact with adults, manage a house, etc. It also paints a picture of life without the support and love of family.
Behind the tough guy image, and almost supernatural ability to survive on his own, Nickel is clearly a very lonely and hurting kid. He has to find substitutes for family and friendship but even then he can’t completely open up or trust anyone.
For those of us who have experienced safe and loving families and relationships our entire lives, it can help to see how difficult life would be if you had to survive completely on your own; to try to imagine what life is like for those on the streets, in foster care, etc.
Nickel Plated strikes me as one of those experiments that works well for some, not at all for others, but can be appreciated by many. You may or may not buy the premise, but the unique style and perspective makes for an interesting read and an appreciation for the creativity and imagination of the author.