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Monday, November 13, 2023
CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS, first novel is an out-of-the-park home run
NANA KWAME ADJEI-BRENYAH
$27.00 hardcover, available now
Rating: 4.95* of five
One of Literary Hub's Best Reads od 2023!
New York Public Library Best Books of 2023 for Adults list!
The Publisher Says: Two top women gladiators fight for their freedom within a depraved private prison system not so far-removed from America's own.
Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker are the stars of Chain-Gang All-Stars, the cornerstone of CAPE, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, a highly-popular, highly-controversial, profit-raising program in America's increasingly dominant private prison industry. It's the return of the gladiators and prisoners are competing for the ultimate prize: their freedom.
In CAPE, prisoners travel as Links in Chain-Gangs, competing in death-matches for packed arenas with righteous protestors at the gates. Thurwar and Staxxx, both teammates and lovers, are the fan favorites. And if all goes well, Thurwar will be free in just a few matches, a fact she carries as heavily as her lethal hammer. As she prepares to leave her fellow Links, she considers how she might help preserve their humanity, in defiance of these so-called games, but CAPE's corporate owners will stop at nothing to protect their status quo and the obstacles they lay in Thurwar's path have devastating consequences.
Moving from the Links in the field to the protestors to the CAPE employees and beyond, Chain-Gang All-Stars is a kaleidoscopic, excoriating look at the American prison system's unholy alliance of systemic racism, unchecked capitalism, and mass incarceration, and a clear-eyed reckoning with what freedom in this country really means.
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.
My Review: Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, or C.A.P.E., doesn't feel satirical. It feels nauseatingly predictive. This first novel, by the author of the excellent story collection Friday Black (my all-but five star review at the link), is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in presented in less than a week's time.
The horrors of imprisonment aren't new. Neither is it news that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by those horrors. The horrible prevalence of carceral solutions to minor infractions started their rise with the ludicrous "War on Drugs" that was utterly ineffective at its stated goal, but gigantically successful at creating inmates for an increasingly corporatized and profit-driven prison system.
This novel's a shout of outrage, a howl of fury and grief, a klaxon of warning about this facet of the dehumanizing and victimizing of people of color by the racist system of "justice" in place in the US. It's equally effective as an anti-capitalist bellow of rage at the unchecked quest for profit above all other goals that is doing so much to actively destroy the planet's biosphere...that we all live in...with its greed.
We start our visit to a barely-fictionalized present-day US with a violent scene of battle brought to us by the CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) program. Take a moment, please, to view this acronym. Look at the cultural tie-backs; the superhero comic-book culture polluting my screens for a decade now gets a brickbat right away, as does the Orwellian alphabet soup so prevalent in modern governmental bowls of gruel served to the needy (SNAP, WIC, AFDC and the like). This is Author Adjei-Brenyah's most well-honed talent: In Friday Black, he invented the slang term "shoelookers" for socially awkward teens unable or unwilling to meet their peers' or anyone else's gaze. This is a writer with an excellent ear serving a flensing-knife of an eye. Nothing in this read has any less sharp a perception or a usage case behind it. That is probably the most discomfiting thing about the novel: As I admired his wordsmithery, I realize the point of the red-hot blade he was forging was aimed squarely at me. Old white man, privileged and pampered by a system designed to coddle and comfort me. Well. That's me told.
So it is...and most of y'all, too. You won't necessarily like this part of your reading experience, if my own is any guide; I don't think it should, in your minds, present an excuse for you not to make the effort to read it. If the world has justice in its sharing-out of cultural kudos, this novel will win the National Book Award for Fiction in a few days' time. The reason I want it to is that it shouts the quiet part out loud in a cultural landscape of politely, passively sleepwalking into a new authoritarian era of unspeakable, horrifying intentions. The people trying to gain control of the world aren't troubling to hide their intentions, either, except to say blandly homogenized inoffensive acronymic things...or exactly what Author Adjei-Brenyah is warning us about so very effectively in Chain-Gang All-Stars.
If I'm honest, that is also a problem with the read. It is a warning. A story that, while I believe in its worldbuilding, is still meant to tell me something uncomfortable about my world. Historically, awards aren't always willing to put their celebratory wreaths on creative projects that poke people hard in their painful spots. I very much don't want that to be the case for Chain-Gang All-Stars, but it could easily lose the public lauding that the National Book Award for Fiction represents just based on what juries often refer to as "controversial ideas." I want all y'all to go get the book and engage with it on the intellectual level; the carrot to that perceived stick is a story that could easily be a superb action flick, unremittingly violent and all with genuinely elevated stakes...no one could ever fight for their literal life and have it be mellow. Reading the story on that level is exciting, as it is when you read the Reacher books that fly off the shelves. That's not my reading sweet spot. I look at it, frankly, as the cheese wrapped around the pill that you need to get down the dog's throat.
If I'm committed to that metaphor, I will say it's a bit like using Roquefort for the purpose. Rich, creamy, power-packed flavorsome stuff. Rare and expensive (in lost illusions). Hard to find the real, genuinely, ethically sourced stuff.
Here it is.