FRIDAY BLACK, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 194 pp., $14.99 paper.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's caustically inventive and audaciously topical debut collection of short stories wastes no time in letting you know where the author stands. The first story, “The Finkelstein 5,” details the repercussions surrounding the murder trial of a white man arguing that his bloody murder of five black children with a chain saw was in self-defense.
That the premise is satirical in no way diminishes one’s distressing sense that it’s just wild enough to be a plausible news story. Indeed this story and others in "Friday Black" are haunted by the memory of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager fatally shot in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator in a gated Sanford, Florida, community where the boy was staying. Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder charges three years later seem to have inspired another story, “Zimmer Land," told from the perspective of an African-American employee of a theme park whose white patrons are encouraged to act out their fantasies of distributing rough justice to people of color they regard as threatening on sight.
There is anger in this collection, but also nuance, grace and a probing empathy with the breaking hearts and bemused emotions of men, women and children struggling to deal with the jolting maelstrom of postmillennial American racism. In “The Finkelstein 5," for instance, scenes of the trial, however edgy and dark their content, provide backdrop for a narrative about a young black man named Emmanuel and his inchoate struggle to find an outlet for his anger over the case and for the myriad indignities he suffers from whites while shopping or looking for a job.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah may well be the most provocative among a startlingly promising group of young African American short-fiction writers (Nafissa Thompson-Spires, JM Holmes, Jamel Brinkley) who have emerged this year. His mordant wit, dystopian visions and keen sense of injustice aren’t just intended to shock the reader but also to provide space to contemplate myriad social traumas and their close-to-the-bone effects on people’s lives. “The Era" is a multilayered postapocalyptic chronicle set in a school district whose at-risk students gain self-respect through regular injections of a controlled substance called “Good.” Racial elements are muted in this story, whose overriding concern is with the struggle to discover and retain one’s humanity in a system built to discourage such effort.
Adjei-Brenyah can find dystopias everywhere, even in department stores. The title story depicts with wit, menace and unrelenting howls the first night of holiday shopping as a savage ritual where one’s life could flash before one’s eyes while grabbing a “Coalmeister bubble coat” (whatever that is). This bloody saga turns out to be part of a cycle of stories involving retail sales. One of them is even titled “In Retail,” whose narrator, after mentioning the suicide of a cashier, says, “[I]f you wanna be happy here in the Prominent Mall you have to dig happiness up, ‘cause it’s not gonna just walk up to you and ask how you’re doing.”
That observation, as much as any in “Friday Black,” could encapsulate what these bleak, funny and oddly heartfelt stories are trying to tell their readers: In the most trying and bewildering times, don’t expect sense to be easily made or grace to force its way in your lives. Make your own sense of things. Let the grace come to you.