In This Satire, Televised Blood Baths Offer Prisoners a Path to Freedom

CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah


Should I be having this much fun? This is one queasy testament to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s talent: You cannot applaud his debut novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” without getting blood on your hands. To enjoy the action is to share in the guilt of the bloodthirsty fans sitting ringside at the live-broadcast death matches between prison inmates. Adjei-Brenyah is so good at writing fight scenes that our moral disgust never definitively stamps out the primitive thrill of reading them.

This is also why his book works. It is an act of protest, but it does not straightforwardly preach. Instead, it lures you in, as if to demonstrate how easy it might be to accept a world this sick. Even readers who acknowledge the brazen evil of the dystopian premise — these televised duels offer prisoners a path to freedom — might find themselves titillated by its depiction, which functions as both satire and straight-up sportswriting. The lulls between bouts give readers a beat to think about all the ways they’ve been conditioned to enjoy such a story, by any number of America’s perversions: its narcotic televised pastimes, its singular talent for mass incarceration, its steady innovation in violence technology, its racial caste system, its eternal appetite for retribution. But it’s fun, I promise.

And yet, as much as this book made me laugh at these parts of the world I recognized as being mocked, it also made me wish I recognized less of it. The United States of “Chain-Gang All-Stars” is like ours, if sharpened to absurd points and flung a few decades into the future. Its most famous athlete is Loretta Thurwar, our protagonist, beloved for bashing her peers to death with a large hammer. In her anonymous prior life, she was convicted of killing a lover. After opting into the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) program, Thurwar left the confines of a private prison and entered a more glamorous kind of captivity. These prisoners, known as Links, belong to teams called Chains, which trudge all day long in Marches all over the country. Periodically they arrive at arenas to fight Links from rival Chains to the death. These battles are presented for the world as pay-per-view sports. The rest of their daily lives, full of internal politics and wanton bloodshed, are packaged as episodic reality television.

The book jacket for “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, shows a red sickle striking the letter C in the title as multicolored sparks fly out of the collision.

All this exposure leads to towering celebrity. The top fighters occupy a paradoxical place in society: the incarcerated influencer, as if Spartacus were churning out sponcon on his off days. Grocery stores and fast-food chains vie for precious ad space on Thurwar’s skin and clothing. Drivers and soldier-police officers shepherd these celebrities to news conferences and civic engagement days; “Your subjects are waiting, convict,” one guard says to a popular fighter about to greet a rapt audience, compressing the irony into five words. Before fights, the star talent leads fans in call-and-response chants, working in an idiom that’s equal parts Muhammad Ali, boom-bap rap and Zen koan. This “sport” profits hugely from these athletes’ charisma — which is, in most cases, unmistakably Black — while keeping them enslaved with electronic wrist restraints.

This book is not shy with its allegories. After a triumph on the killing grounds, a fighter earns points with which to upgrade weapons or food or lodging, as if the prison commissary had drawn inspiration from a role-playing video game. What all these fighters seek is freedom, a word that appears capitalized throughout the book, like a term of art or faith. It comes in two types: Low Freedom (death, however it might find them) and High Freedom (pardon, commutation or clemency after three years survived on the circuit).

This whole scheme is laid out in a voice that belongs only to Adjei-Brenyah, who bends the lurid into the lyrical — pretty words about hideous deeds. Some of his best fight sentences sound as if Joe Rogan had fallen into a trance and assumed the diction and rhythms of Toni Morrison. If you recoil at that unholy fusion, that’s kind of the point; and the author keeps pulling off this shock, page after page. Adjei-Brenyah has a fine intuition, an almost spatial sense for what we need to see and what we don’t. His names are crisp, like Sunset Harkless (a man) and Spinifer Black (a spear), and his compact euphemisms a gift. When the incarcerated fight to the death for public enjoyment, it is marketed to bros as “hard action-sports.” One such audience member, catching a ray of pseudoenlightenment, realizes that watching a woman bash people to death for three years has turned him into “a feminist.” There’s more than a little George Saunders in these high jinks, and it is no surprise to see him thanked as a mentor in the acknowledgments. The novel is a thorough display of authorial control; Adjei-Brenyah only ever loses his handle on the pace and tone in a few meandering dialogues between Thurwar and her team- and soul mate, Hurricane Staxxx.

Some people in this imagined society protest the institution of CAPE, but many, many more happily fold it into their pop-cultural diet. Enthusiasts have figured out how to push headlong through the cognitive dissonance of enjoying live murder. That friction creates much of the novel’s grim humor, which will be familiar to anyone whose favorite entertainment has an unavoidable human cost. One viewer slowly warms up to this sick spectacle as “a study in humanity that she’d decided any intellectual, socially aware person at least had to peruse. It was part of the cultural conversation; even if she was ambivalent about its ethics, she couldn’t pretend it wasn’t an interesting part of the world.” Straight out of a thinking fan’s defense of the N.F.L.

Of course, in addition to the damage wrought by the entertainment industry on our public conscience, Adjei-Brenyah is concerned with the state’s harm to those citizens it deems beyond saving. “Chain-Gang All-Stars” is honest about the inhumanity of incarceration and the increasingly elaborate mechanisms we build in place of forgiveness and rehabilitation. As the plot careers forward, Adjei-Brenyah uses footnotes as tethers between fiction and reality, reminding us that his gladiatorial farce is just a little tragicomic leap from an extant American horror. At the bottom of the page, he might stash bits of the U.S. penal code or the Geneva Conventions: eulogies for real-life victims of police violence, solitary confinement and wrongful conviction. He presents potent arguments for abolition, from the fighters themselves and the activists supporting them from the outside, and for the brutal logic against it, voiced by the operators of these games, who believe them to be a deterrent to crime, a form of absolution for those who otherwise do not deserve it — and, conveniently, a source of their own personal enrichment.

A writer who was up to the ideological but not the emotional task of such a novel might have settled for thinner characters. But Adjei-Brenyah, flitting from perspective to perspective in brisk chapters, assumes all of them easily and fills the characters’ inner lives to the brim, especially those of the incarcerated. These people navigate their feelings of permeating, heartbreaking guilt, but also their wellness routines, fickle romances, creaky joints, fading memories of civilian life, inane daydreams. The society in which they live defines them by their worst deeds, but the writer of this novel refuses to.


Giri Nathan is a writer and co-founder at Defector Media.


CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS | By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah | 363 pp. | Pantheon | $27

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