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In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel, ‘Chain Gang All-Stars,’ the darkest features of American society come together in a horrific — and horrifically plausible — reflection of dystopian greed and racist voyeurism

Oboh Moses for The Boston Globe

At its best, dystopian fiction serves as a cautionary tale. Through imagination, it fertilizes the unsown seeds of disruption and disintegration. It allows them to grow wild with roots tearing through to reveal what is both feral and indelible within us. It frays the fragile barrier between base instincts and what we generously call civilization — the uncrossable lines that, when pushed, we will cross.

In “Chain Gang All-Stars,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah sets his ferocious debut novel in one of the most inherently dystopian institutions ever conceived — the American penal system. With ruthless dexterity, he erases that comforting border between who we are and, if unchecked, what we might become. And the future is now.


At this novel’s core is a story connecting American obsessions — mass incarceration, racism, capitalism, and violence as entertainment. Adjei-Brenyah already has all the pieces he needs in place. With fans flocking to arenas and watching pay-per-view streams of fighters punching, kicking, and kneeing each other bloody, combat sports such as mixed martial arts are a multibillion-dollar industry.

In a nation that built its astonishing wealth through nearly 250 years of Black enslavement, American capitalism knows no bottom. But Adjei-Brenyah reserves his harshest judgment for this nation’s thirst for mass incarceration. No country on earth imprisons a larger percentage of its population than America — and those jailed are disproportionately Black and brown people. That’s a ripe target for Adjei-Brenyah’s indicting commentary on a nation unmoored from its morality.

From its opening pages, the reader is tossed into BattleGround, the site of the Chain Gang All-Stars. That’s “the crown jewel in the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment [CAPE] program,” where prisoners with rudimentary weapons fight each other to the death. If they’re successful over numerous fights, they could win their freedom. For others, death is their only escape.


Skulls are crushed. Bones are snapped. Flesh is decimated. But there is no more harrowing sound than a crowd loudly demanding all the carnage their money can buy. When Loretta Thurwar enters the ring, she is an underdog. Matched against Melancholia Bishop, who has been “conquering souls” for three years, Loretta is expected to die. And the more gruesome her death, the better the show for its bloodthirsty viewers and CAPE’s corporate sponsors.

The incarcerated only exist for the fans’ amusement and entertainment, and when Loretta ultimately prevails, she is both adored and feared. But even as she continues to fight, she recognizes the transitory nature of that adoration.

“In some sick irony, the deadlier she proved herself to be, the fewer precautions the men and women who shuffled her between performances took with her,” Adjei-Brenyah writes. “Often it seemed that they wanted to align themselves with her. Her success, she knew, legitimized something in their minds. She killed, they loved her better, and she hated them more deeply.”

Loretta’s lover, Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, is also a prisoner, a warrior, and a Black woman. In this novel, they represent slivers of light in what can at times feel like a permanent midnight. But Adjei-Brenyah does not miss an opportunity to turn a harsh eye toward the misogynoir at the heart of the fans’ capricious affections.

Of a man who marvels at them, Adjei-Brenyah writes, “He clearly felt awe and respect for these two women, but also was not bothered by the fact that they were living a razor’s edge from death. He knew it likely helped that they were Black women; market research found that the public generally cared less for their survival. In the center of a complicated nexus of adored and hated, desired but also easy to watch being destroyed, it had to be a Black woman.”


Adjei-Brenyah does not flinch. Neither does he miss his targets, because he has the stiff winds of history at his back. When as a reader you believe he has strained credulity, you remember headlines from the past decade — a guard arrested for running a “fight club” in a New Jersey prison; women inmates who claimed they were sexually assaulted after an Indiana jail officer reportedly sold keys to their cells to male inmates. In San Francisco, jail guards forced inmates into gladiator-style fights for money and pleasure.

Because Adjei-Brenyah skews so close to the atrocities we know, the implausible melts into the unnerving, yet possible. People can be this selfish and cruel. Money trumps compassion. And those charged with upholding the law can be the most lawless of all.

Comparisons between “Chain Gang All-Stars” and films like “The Running Man” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Battle Royale,” a Japanese classic by Kinji Fukasaku, or “The Hunger Games” are inevitable. But it should also bring to mind “Network,” the seminal 1975 film about the extremes to which an evening news show will go to boost its sagging ratings, including televising assassinations and acts of terrorism. “The death hour — great Sunday night show for the whole family,” jokes the network’s news division president.


Adjei-Brenyah has more on his mind than TV ratings. He offers a warning and a critique, but also tough love. When a protester from the Coalition to End Neo-Slavery says, “I’m an abolitionist, which means I’m interested in investing in communities to address problems rather than carceral answers that don’t serve communities at all,” Adjei-Brenyah sounds like the son of a criminal defense attorney that he is. “Murderers and rapists do great harm, but carceral institutions in this country do little to mitigate that harm.”

Like the coalition searching for answers to not just eliminate the physical prisons that cage people, Adjei-Brenyah looks at the incarceration of hearts given too easily to mindless violence. With “Chain Gang All-Stars” he lets us think we’re reading a satire, but soon reveals a mirror of our dystopian days that lie not too far away.


By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Pantheon, 363 pages, $277

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.