Adjei-Brenyah's novel explores in disturbing detail a version of a society that may feel familiar: a corrupt, greedy prison system; the exploitation of "disposable" lives for money and entertainment; the impact of racial and socioeconomic disparities on imprisonment; and the impossible intersection of forced fights and undying loyalty.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's Chain-Gang All-Stars explores an America in which prisoners in the private prison industry take part in profitable, popular, and controversial televised gladiator death-match performances in which they fight for their freedom.
Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" are lovers, teammates, and the stars of Chain-Gang All-Stars, a televised program at the heart of CAPE, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment.
Each Chain Gang is a group of prisoner fighters that make up a team, yet each must fight opponents to the death to have any hope of emerging from the prison system.
Entering into the gladiator-styled lifestyle is presented as a choice, but the prisoners have few options and little control over their lives.
Adjei-Brenyah offers glimpses of characters' histories and their lives before the tragedies that led to their imprisonment. The story includes perspectives from those who stand outside the stadiums to loudly protest the brutality and inhuman bargain pushed upon those in the show--as well as the rabid fans of the obscene entertainment and how they justify viewing and cheering for the show's glorified, regularly broadcast murders.
Loretta is poised to earn her freedom in just a few more matches. She's bracing herself to leave behind her beloved teammates and Staxxx--but the corporate owners of CAPE will do anything to protect their investment and secure their profits.
When those pulling the strings change the rules to force a dramatic showdown, key characters must make impossible choices, even as they seemed to have suspected there would be no graceful emergence from their doomed existence as was blithely promised.
The ending is a showstopper.
I listened to Chain-Gang All-Stars as an audiobook courtesy of Libro.fm and Penguin Random House Audio. It was a difficult story to read but also a disturbingly fascinating exploration of the prison system, a collective obsession with violence, and the concept that there are few taboos on what might be televised and monetized.
The author includes nonfiction footnotes that link race, socioeconomic disparity, and imprisonment. These tie the book's tragic, dystopian scenario to our current society in an uncomfortably close-to-home manner.
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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is also the author of Friday Black.