The Audacious Book Club: Chain Gang All-Stars
The May Selection
In the opening story of his debut collection Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah introduces us to Emmanuel, a young Black man living in the wake of the murder of 5 Black kids, the “Finkelstein 5,” who were decapitated with a chainsaw by a white man in front of a public library. The story is an interweaving of the white man’s trial—at which he claims self defense and is found innocent—and Emmanuel’s daily attempts to try to keep his “Blackness” down and to grapple with his friend’s Boogie’s outlook on the world, which is increasingly to go on the offensive. The story and its powerful climax—and indeed, the entire collection—are a masterful amalgamation of horror, pathos, humor, and brutal American reality that is a hallmark of Adjei-Brenyah’s skill.
Both that skill and that amalgamation work in tandem again in Adjei-Brenyah’s second book, the novel Chain Gang All-Stars. The America reflected in Friday Black’s “Zimmer Land”—the dystopia Westworld-style theme park where patrons hunt down young Black men in protective gear and shoot them with pretend bullets so they can perform pretend deaths—has become something both more expansive and more sinister in this novel. It is an America that farms incarcerated people out as part of the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment program or CAPE and forces them to travel the country and fight each other to the death in televised pay-per-view battles that brings them both celebrity and scrutiny.
The novel’s protagonist, Loretta Thurwar, is famous for beating her opponents to death with a hammer and is just a few matches from release (what they call “High Freedom” versus the “Low Freedom” of death). Her teammate and lover, “Hurricane Staxx” Stacker, is a mixture of violence and love and on her way to achieving Grand Colossal, the highest rank before freedom. Both fighters are on the verge of greatness, and even more important, autonomy; but of course, the corporate owners of CAPE are far more concerned with profit and keeping their audience rapt than they are about the lives and futures of Thurwar and Stacker. Their quest to cling to both have profound repercussions.
Chain Gang All-Stars is a harrowing, bloody, action-packed read; in the same stroke, it has the emotional complexities and the interior worlds of its characters. This novel offers a powerful commentary on celebrity, capitalism, racism, and the shameful legacies of mass incarceration. I can’t wait to discuss this with you over the next few weeks.
Reminds me of the amazing comic book series "Bitch Planet" - similar dystopia, etc.
hi, is there a date for the
May selection? Am seeing (i.e. listening to the talk) the author at the Santa Fe Literature Festival in 2 weeks