Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s ‘Chain-Gang All-Stars’ is one of the year’s goriest novels. It’s also one of the best.

Christopher Borrelli | Chicago Tribune (TNS)

In the first nine days that Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah was on tour this month for his novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” there were 23 mass shootings in this country. More than 30 people were killed. Many more were injured. That’s according to the Gun Violence Archive, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that defines mass shootings as four or more killed or wounded. (They take their cue from the FBI, which defines mass “killings” as four or more victims.) When I met Adjei-Brenyah in the West Loop, he didn’t know those statistics; I didn’t know them, either. I looked them up later at home. Still, on a whim, I asked if he had an idea of how many people were killed by guns since his tour began.

He didn’t, and why would he? But the thought was not lost on him:

Adjei-Brenyah, who belongs on anyone’s shortlist of great new American writers, specializes in tales of acceptable violence: How much do we endure? Who suffers? Is some amount of violence in the United States the cost of those freedoms that allow it?

He takes that idea and shrinks the morality, but only a smidgen. His short story “The Finkelstein 5″ — a finalist for the Tribune’s Nelson Algren awards in 2016, first published in the Tribune book section — is about a white man who feels threatened by five Black children and kills them with a chain saw; in retaliation, three white schoolgirls are killed with ice picks. In his story “Zimmer Land,” a theme park promises, so says its mission statement, “a safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice and judgment”; in reality, it gives racists a chance to shoot at Black people and Muslims who wear protective clothes that squirt fake blood. In Adjei-Brenyah’s stories, self-esteem is an injection away, and aborted fetuses plead for their lives. Trampled bodies in “Friday Black,” the title story of his bestselling 2018 book, is the acceptable cost of Black Friday bargains.

“I think about purpose,” he told me. “What kind of writer should I be? What should the purpose of my writing be? I decided I am supposed to explore great harshness in life, but see if I can push us towards compassion. I want to grow your imagination in that direction. That’s my work purpose. And it sounds very important. But some days I feel like trash, I suck and I’m like, ‘OK, so where the (expletive) is my MacArthur Award?’”

It’s coming.

Adjei-Brenyah is just 32 and “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” his first novel, is already landing a lot of best-of-the-year hosannas. The Washington Post compared it to “1984″ and “The Handmaid’s Tale”; The New York Times said the writing is so visceral and weirdly fun, it’s impossible to read its summertime thrills without “getting blood on your hands.”

It’s also, in a roundabout way, a product of the George Saunders School of American Humor and Hurt. Saunders, a native of Oak Forest, is our premier contemporary interpreter of off-brand ridiculousness and casual cruelty (with a tinge of speculative whimsy); Adjei-Brenyah, a decade ago, attended Syracuse University with the primary goal of studying there with Saunders, a professor in its creative writing program. He thought of Saunders at first “more like this symbol than a human being.” Saunders eventually became his teacher and thesis adviser, and the best kind of inspiration:

Ambient, not imitated.

“Chain-Gang All-Stars” takes place in a prison just over the American horizon, in a recognizable near-future, as mundane as one of Saunders’ morally caustic amusement parks or zoos. The for-profit prison industry has found a friend in professional sports and created wildly-popular televised gladiatorial combat — or “hard-action sports,” as the corporate marketing prefers. In fact, Adjei-Brenyah draws on a formidable trio of Illinois writers to sell this world: There’s a little David Foster Wallace in his believable, bloodless jargon. One weapon is named Lickem-Splitem, and TotemWorks is one of the many corporate sponsors of the games, which are played on a BattleGround; when not fighting to the death, contestants — incarcerated, mostly Black and referred to as “Links” — are filmed for “LinkLyfe,” a reality series about the behind-the-scenes prison drama.

To describe the violence in the games — which is rough, yet undeniably rousing, with shades of the “Mad Max” movies — Adjei-Brenyah turned to former Chicago poet Roger Reeves and his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston.” Reeves considered the ethics and pleasures and luxuries of reproducing violence. Then Adjei-Brenyah took that further, into the mindset of an average American who reflectively explains the allure of prime-time murder. When “Chain-Gang All-Stars” begins, these contests have been a media institution for decades, the sort of inescapable American entertainment that, one viewer justifies, “was a part of the cultural conversation.” Think “The Hunger Games” shot through with complicity and real disgust.

Because, of course, we hear ourselves.

Adjei-Brenyah, who is handsome and tall with a cautious smile and a thing for thousand-yard stares, talked about all this while wearing a caramel-colored baseball hat reading: “A better world is coming.” It’s a promise he seems to return to throughout a conversation, mourning the world while certain he’s doing his part to adjust its trajectory.

His father was a defense attorney; he died six months after “Friday Black” was published. His mother was a kindergarten teacher until she lost her job. Both immigrated from Ghana. Adjei-Brenyah was born in the Bronx and grew up in Spring Valley, outside New York City, in the Hudson Valley. After their home was foreclosed on, Adjei-Brenyah, who worked in a clothing store in a local mall and ate lunch daily beneath a Barnes & Noble mural of Zora Neale Hurston and Charles Dickens, saw writing, however improbably, as a way to earn money and help his parents. “It was like, OK, write a book and get a lot of money then get a new apartment for my family. I didn’t, of course, have any sense of how this all worked, and I kind of still don’t.”

But after “Friday Black” made a stir (winning the top prize at the PEN America literary awards in 2019), all 12 of the short stories in the book were optioned by TV and movie producers. He did make that money to help his mother. “Chain-Gang,” he hears, is being read right now by every major filmmaker you can picture, though he’s less impressed than others. (“When someone sells screen rights, people go ‘Wow,’ as if that’s the end goal. And wait, I want to say, a movie is the work of hundreds of people, yet I wrote this myself.”)

“Chain-Gang” is a pop casserole of contemporary thoughts on the ethics of the criminal justice system, the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, the exploitation of sports celebrities, the violence of the NFL, LGBTQ romance. You can see the appeal to Hollywood. And the concern of its writer that provocative, intentionally tantalizing yet complicated material could be reduced to Oscar-eager talking points and gore.

“The commodification of human beings happens in a lot of ways,” Adjei-Brenyah said. “I’m a huge fan of sports, for instance, but I also know the reduction that comes with people being boiled down to a stat. Even when you give them a lot of money, what does this do to our understanding of them as human beings? The fundamental tenant that allows all of this to exist is that a person’s humanity can be assigned, then reassigned.”

“Chain-Gang” follows a pair of female prisoners who form an unbeatable team (called a “chain”). They are described by Adjei-Brenyah as white-hot celebrities, “desired, but also easy to destroy.” They fight with the promise of eventual freedom, but this is also a country that loves pecking orders, revenge and changing the rules to placate power. As much as all this sounds like a polemic, it’s closer to a tiptoe between satire and protest.

Before we met, videos of shooting deaths in Texas circulated online. Adjei-Brenyah said that what a writer can do with the constant beat of violence is redirect it into protest or satire, “and not merely recreate but use it as a tool for the disassembling tools that enable it.”

Which is kind of your thing, I said.

“Yeah, it is kind of my thing,” he said. “Our government sometimes murders people. Five percent of people on death row are probably innocent. We used to quarter people, then we used the gallows, the electric chair, now lethal injection — which is extremely violent, except the person is paralyzed. I’m saying our illusion of being less violent is just that, illusion. What I hope comes across (in the writing) is that the actual world is much more violent. Prisons cut off at the knees our ability to react to mental health crisis, or respond to addiction, or address poverty. And those are all violences. I’m just redirecting them.”

When he studied at Syracuse, he received a writing prompt: “Can a story change the world?” He misread it as: “Can a story save the world?” Then internalized the mistake.

“That may sound kind of cringe to people, but I don’t care. People think they can’t make things better, and that it’s cringe to try, and I know that it’s possible. I’ve seen it happen.”

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