Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman
Publication date: May 21, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary, Satire
Sometimes a synopsis can come out of nowhere and make you pick up a book you never thought you would, but it’s a dicey proposition because marketing people are wily devils. Their entire purpose in life is to seduce. But it still doesn’t quite explain why I thought a novel about a Sri Lankan male inmate in an American prison in the midst of a riot would make for something I wanted to read. I have no answer, except to say that the book gods smiled down on me and the politically incorrect and wildly creative Riots I Have Known is a gem.
Our earnest narrator has barricaded himself in the Westbrook Correctional Facility’s media center when Riots I Have Known begins. He’s the editor-in-chief of the prison’s newsletter, The Holding Pen, which has proved to be both a boon and a bane in his life. The blessing is the status it conferred on him and the safety it accorded him amongst his fellow inmates. He gave them an outlet for their boredom and could potentially allow them to be discovered by the outside world for their creative talent. Because, of course, the newsletter is online (as well as in print and available at all Urban Outfitters stores). The curse is that he doesn’t speak Spanish and neither does the media savvy, money-hungry warden, so the poem they published in this month’s issue, from a member of the Latin Kings gang, was actually code for a prison break, with the riot as a diversion.
Now, he watches the riot unfold in other blocks of the prison (waiting for it to close in on him) and writes his final Editor’s Letter in real time, thanks to an auto-publish setting developed for the newsletter by a college intern
…an incredibly useful function on days like today with their high probability of interruption and dismemberment.
He alludes to this being his chance to document the riot accurately, even as he acknowledges it will likely include his own death either from another inmate he is certain is
…disemboweling another inmate at this very moment, working his way through the riot like an upstream salmon.
or the state police he can see thanks to geo-tagging on Instagram. He is a maestro of social media, thanking followers—including Kristen Wiig, who guest edited the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology, which included several pieces from The Holding Pen. He checks in on the various subreddits that are either for or against the journal and Twitter, and celebrates when #westbrookriot starts trending. At the same time, he is sly in sharing anything about himself, especially his crime. We know only that he was an ambitious young man working with Hilton Hotels in Sri Lanka, but after saving enough money in an offshore HSBC online account, he landed in NYC to become a doorman at a posh apartment building. His prison nickname has something to do with ‘widow killer’, but if we want to know more, we should check his Wikipedia entry.
And so it goes for 130 pages of the most subversive and incisive writing I’ve read in a long time. Debut author Ryan Chapman parachutes into the thick of prison life from the opening page, which is a gamble, because it takes a few pages to settle into the novel’s rhythm. The humor is so off-kilter and wrong that laughing feels like an inappropriate response, but Chapman leaves no other option. His writing sprays the landscape with machine gun bursts of acerbic humor and truth-telling that land with pinpoint accuracy. Modern-day society is skewered, leaving no aspect of the right or the left unscathed, but, damn, it is funny. If you’re in a head space where dark and absurdist, but hilarious sounds good, you need to read Riots I Have Known now.