Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. New York, NY. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2018. 192 pages. $14.99. Paperback.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black contains no shortage of absurd realities, and yet not one of them feels distant from our own. The stories in this collection are ultra-violent. Their characters are either on the brink, in the commission, or sweating through the aftermath of vicious acts of cruelty. They frequently explore the conflation of justice with violence in the United States and the necessity of violence to achieve justice that won’t be granted otherwise. In one story, five black children are grotesquely beheaded by a white father who claims they endangered him and his family. He is subsequently exonerated. This leads various black individuals across the nation to repeat the violence suffered by the innocent “Finkelstein 5” against white people who, for the first time, must associate fear with their skin color. Another story depicts a theme park called “Zimmerland” that allows its guests to practice their “problem-solving, justice, and judgment” by exposing them to real world conflicts. However, instead of practicing justice, Zimmerland’s guests return again and again to practice violence, especially racially-motivated violence, and they can’t be banned because they’ve made the whole endeavor profitable by their constant patronage. That is perhaps the most insightful throughline in Adjei-Brenyah’s stories; even when individuals don’t want to commit or enable acts of violence, the incentives of capitalism make it too enticing.
This phenomenon is most evident in the collection’s three connected stories: “Friday Black,” “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing,” and “In Retail.” The first depicts an outdoor apparel outlet in a mall on America’s famously gory holiday, Black Friday. Customers become zombies, unable to communicate and willing to kill anyone between them and their half-price fleeces. Employees are no better; though they retain normal speech, they’ve become unfeeling in their competition to sell the most jackets. The narrator uses an eight-foot metal pole to “smack down Friday heads” and to push trampled bodies out of the aisles. The second connected story is less violent, but it reveals another sick aspect of capitalist transactions: the corruption of empathy. The same narrator snickers with a female customer as they watch her husband struggle out of a jacket, and when she turns around he looks at the husband “like, Women, am I right?” He makes each of them feel understood while inside, he only sees them as another sale. The final of these three stories begins with a mode of escape from the hell of the mall: a cashier at “Taco Town” leaps from the fourth floor balcony. Adjei-Brenyah’s stories are not always hopeless. His characters tell jokes in literally humorless worlds. They work together to prevent a mass shooting. But they rarely achieve hope, nor justice, without violence along the way.
––Dan Marcantuono, Fiction editor, Mid-American Review