© 2024 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘Chain-Gang All-Stars’ examines the violence and injustice of America’s prison system

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is the author of "Chain-Gang All-Stars”
Limitless Imprint Entertainment
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is the author of "Chain-Gang All-Stars”

It’s been about five years since Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah released his debut short story collection, “Friday Black.” I’m still haunted by one of those stories, which featured a virtual-reality amusement park where visitors could hunt terrorists or shoot intruders played by minority actors.

Adjei-Brenyah is finally back — this time with his first full-length novel — and he once again uses speculative fiction to illuminate the violence and injustice of our real world. “Chain-Gang All-Stars” offers an imagined future in which convicted prisoners can opt out of long-term sentences by participating in death-matches. The fights happen inside packed arenas and are available via pay-per-view, much like MMA cage matches. Think “Hunger Games” or “Gladiator” meets “Orange Is the New Black.”

The novel focuses on Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, teammates and lovers who are links in one of the prison system’s premiere Chain-Gangs. Thurwar is nearing a final match where she could earn the ultimate prize — her freedom. In the meantime, she savors her time with Staxxx and the little moments when they can remember and try to recapture their humanity.

Adjei-Brenyah strays from the main storyline with subplots that are every bit as worthy and gut-wrenching. We meet a scientist who accidentally invents an instrument of torture and a man who becomes a victim of that device. We meet a rabid fan of the Chain-Gang leagues and his reluctant wife, who finds herself drawn to the action despite her disgust. And we meet protestors who reflect the author’s own abolitionist beliefs — that our current system of mass incarceration fails prisoners as well as society.

“Chain-Gang All-Stars” is both brilliant and devastating, a look at our resilient humanity and the damage we are capable of.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.