Riots I Have Known, the debut novel from journalist Ryan Chapman, opens with the unnamed narrator confronting his imminent death. He's in a prison that's currently in the midst of a bloody riot, the direct result of a piece published in The Holding Pen, the literary magazine the narrator edits. "The tenor of my own shuffling off this mortal coil will be determined by whoever first breaks down my meager barricade here in the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts," he sadly reflects.
This is not a typical setup for a work of comedy. But somehow, Chapman's book is one of the funniest American novels to come around in years, a sharp satire of the literary scene as well as the broken prison system. Despite the grim subject matter, Chapman packs more laughs into 128 pages than most sitcoms do in an entire season.
The narrator is doing time at Westbrook, a New York prison run by a creative, if venal, warden. While the warden's previous attempts at getting the prisoners involved in creative endeavors have met with mixed results ("As for the brief run of the sandwich shop Open Faces of Death, the less said the better"), the literary magazine that he's ordered the narrator to edit has become a minor phenomenon. "When John Doe of ... Kansas thought of post-penal literary magazines, he thought of us," the narrator boasts.
As the riot rages on, the narrator promises to provide "an official accounting of events, as they happened." He's motivated by the recent publication of a book about his own crimes, written by a "bilious memoirist of the lowest order, a grad-school Judas for the ages" who befriended the narrator after he arrived in jail. "I type this selfless auto-panegyric from the confines of the Media Center, which will most assuredly become my tomb," the narrator writes.
The narrator proves unable to get to the point, however. The novel is written as a long, meandering screed, punctuated by asides about his own childhood in Sri Lanka and his life in prison following his conviction for some very serious crimes (which aren't revealed until the end of the book). He discusses his treatment by prisoners unsure about his heritage: "The Aryans didn't know what I was, but they were pretty sure they hated it," he explains.
He also bemoans the lack of quality contributions from his fellow inmates, complaining, "It is a well-established fact 99.9 percent of penal verse is awful, the inbred cousin of slam poetry with the emotional range of a Wikipedia stub." (He does allow that there are some intelligent residents of the prison; unfortunately, they "are always child rapists.")
Many authors who choose to write from the point of view of a felon compensate by making the character at least a little charismatic. Chapman tacks hard in the opposite direction — the narrator is resolutely charmless and unbearably pretentious, kind of like Ignatius J. Reilly, if Ignatius J. Reilly had been a sadistic sociopath. He can't help showing off his expansive vocabulary, referring to the prison riot as a "Caligulan melee."
But the narrator's sheer punchability actually works in favor of the novel. Freed from the obligation to sympathize with him, the reader is able to appreciate the absurdity of the book, and the obvious fun Chapman is having with the story. (One of the prisoners is nicknamed "O'Bastardface," and a graduate student outside the jail is taking an MFA class called "Queer 'I' for the Straight Guy deBord: New Journalism, New Perspectives.")
And the absurdity is the point. Chapman uses pitch-black humor to highlight how broken the system of criminal justice is — the violent are punished by violence, forced to try to survive in a hate-filled environment populated by racists and run by people with little incentive to care about the lives of those they're in charge of, much less prepare them for re-integration into society. "You see, the artist stands alone," the narrator explains in a rare rational moment. "He stands alone from his people and at the same time among his people, not unlike the incarcerated man at once inside and outside of society."
And yet there's nothing polemical in Riots I Have Known — Chapman never comes close to hitting the reader over the head with ideology. Modern satirical novels sometimes make the rather obvious and fatal error of never approaching anything close to humor, but Chapman avoids that trap. Dark, daring, and laugh-out-loud hilarious, Riots I Have Known is one of the smartest — and best — novels of the year.
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