Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman
Wednesday, May 22, 2019 at 9:15AM
TChris in General Fiction, Ryan Chapman

Published by Simon & Schuster on May 21, 2019

As Monty Python used to say, And now for something completely different:

The unnamed narrator of Riots I Have Known is in prison, reporting on a riot that started in A Block while hoping that his lover/rapist/protegee is safe. He edits the prison literary magazine (The Holding Pen) and has barricaded himself inside the Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts where he is following the riot on television news, HuffPost, and Instagram while reporting on events as they happen. The editor tells us that rioting by the Latin Kings and Muslim Brothers is the sort of thing that inspired Sean Hannity’s Million Concealed Weapons March. The prison’s media center, by the way, is named for its wealthy donors to “honor their twin passions for rehabilitation and computer solitaire.”

Anticipating his death and dismemberment, the editor promises to provide the definitive account of The Holding Pen in what he believes will be his final Editor’s Letter. The magazine was the warden’s idea, a journal of the arts showcasing the reform-minded prison where its editor is incarcerated. Far from relating a definitive history of anything, the editor rambles distractedly (as one might do in a riot), telling us about his life in Sri Lanka, including the formative years he spent scouting for landmines and facilitating the bribes paid by the Hilton Hotels advance man, and his later work as a hotel doorman in Manhattan. It is the latter job that earned him his nine consecutive life sentences, for reasons at which he only hints.

The editor is a self-educated man (and an erudite prisoner, as his rich vocabulary and literary/cultural references demonstrate), his education allegedly and absurdly having resulted from devouring the prison library’s editions of Kafka and cast-off paperbacks. The Holding Pen is eventually noticed by the literary world, sparking a discussion of “post-penal lit,” and reaches respectable levels of site traffic after a Republican senator condemns the journal in a speech about “the bloated welfare state.”

Riots I Have Known is a very funny sendup of trendiness in the arts and snobbishness in art criticism, including the obsession with discovering “underrepresented voices,” ketamine addicts among them. While the humor is often focused on the contrast between inmates who contribute poetry, fiction, and art to the journal and the outside world that makes a fetish of the prisoners, Ryan Chapman has fun with relationship humor, corporate corruption, and prison violence (not typically something to laugh at, but Chapman makes it work, even when he’s being stabbed with a substandard shiv). Much of the humor succeeds; some is discomforting, perhaps intentionally so.

The novel is blessedly short, so the reader is not forced to dwell for long in the narrator’s unresolved hell. I’m not entirely certain of the point Chapman intended to make, but if he only intended to make funny references to condescension by the arbiters of culture, he succeeded more often than he failed. Chapman’s approach seems to have been: Scatter your jokes with a machine gun, then get off the stage and let the audience check for blood.

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