cover image Riots I Have Known

Riots I Have Known

Ryan Chapman. Simon & Schuster, $24 (128p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9730-7

While fellow inmates at the Westbrook prison in upstate New York are rioting, an erudite unnamed Sri Lankan intellectual attempts to put into words his philosophy, personal history, and, eventually, the events that led up to the riot in Chapman’s funny and excellent debut. The narrator has barricaded himself in the Media Center, trying to finish what could be the final issue of his in-house magazine, The Holding Pen. The narrative gets its most solid comic charge from the ironic disparity between the rough circumstances of prison life and the incongruous need of humans to intellectualize. The narrator reports that just before another inmate was stabbed in the yard, “he said: ‘Time makes fools of us all.’” Later he recounts the tale of inept would-be suicide Fritz, who can’t “master the hangman’s noose, he kept falling to his cell floor in a blooper of self-abnegation.” While the narrator documents his uneasy adjustment to prison life and his complex relationship with a pen pal, he is most concerned with his legacy within the niche world of “post-penal literary magazines.” He confesses early on: “I am the architect of the Caligulan melee enveloping Westbrook’s galleries and flats.” The explanation for this claim is offered in spoonfuls; it’s mostly a MacGuffin for protracted yarn spinning and Chapman’s dazzling virtuosity. Supremely mischievous and sublimely written, this is a stellar work.[em] Agent: Marya Spence, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (May) [/em]