Wendy was the best salesperson in the store, which meant she was the best liar, which meant her co-workers should have been suspicious of her “homemade” pie. She made it for the ramshackle Thanksgiving dinner in the store that year, a potluck for the staff to sustain them through the Black Friday deluge. It was a hit, apparently, among all the dishes served, and so was Wendy, who refrained from eating any of the dessert herself. “Everybody was saying how nice she was, how thoughtful,” but Wendy was neither of those things.
“Wendy and I were the only ones who didn’t have the shits that day,” says the lone co-worker, our narrator, who smelled bullshit in Wendy’s poisoned pie. “That was when Wendy was sales lead. Which meant she had the highest sales goals” that Black Friday, which would be her last. “Who knows what she put in that pie. I made it my mission to beat her. And I did … I’ve been lead ever since.” He’s proud, even though he knows he shouldn’t be—but in the cutthroat and unstable world of retail, pride in being the last one left alive is the only kind in stock.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s new collection, Friday Black, weighs individuals’ small, short-term victories, like this one from the titular story, against the long-term solidarity they prevent. But he doesn’t do so to chide his characters for choosing themselves over others—if this can even be called a choice. Instead, Ajdei-Brenyah’s imperative in these 12 stories is showing how this hard world ossifies even the softest souls. These are hard times and these stories traffic in hard subjects—the state-sanctioned murder of Black children, dog-eat-dog capitalism, school shootings, eugenics, nuclear war, among others. But while Friday Black is unforgiving in its depictions of a racist country, a rigged economy, and the eerily recognizable dystopias that might replace them, it is equally unwavering in its moral optimism.
Adjei-Brenyah loves his main characters as much as he loves his readers, both of which groups want justice and not its facsimile. Friday Black gives them the catharsis they demand, only to let them discover in its aftermath that nothing has really been purged. In “The Finkelstein 5,” the gutting first story, teenager Emmanuel Gyan joins a wave of Black-on-white reprisal killings after a white man is acquitted of beheading five Black children with a chainsaw. As Emmanuel is about to assist his first killing, he “wondered if his rage would end … but as he thrashed and yelled and saw it all, he felt nothing leaving him,” right when the police arrive. The climax is gruesome and infuriating, and a sharp reminder of who is allowed the catharsis of public rage and retaliation, and who is expected to bare their souls for the edification of a (white) public.
This first story hits hard, perhaps the hardest of the 12, but Adjei-Brenyah’s exact prose, engrossing storytelling and occasional humor make “The Finkelstein 5” as frictionless to read as the rest of Friday Black. He is a nimble writer, and each sentence is measured—not out of caution, but because Adjei-Brenyah knows exactly how much he needs to say. At times, that means clipped, jaded sentences; at others times, sentences that are tender without being precious. “Sentence-level writer” appropriately describes Adjei-Brenyah, especially in the two-page story “Things My Mother Said.” A story about a mother and son with very little to eat, its sentences wound the reader one by one:
One day I came home to the warm smell of chicken and rice. I hadn’t been able to steal a second burger in the cafeteria at school that day. My stomach whined. At home the fridge had become a casket bearing nothing. The range and oven had become decorations meant to make a dying box look like a home. Hunger colored those days.
Adjei-Brenyah spins something beautiful out of a bad situation here, but this story doesn’t romanticize anything, nor do any others in the book. Rather, they draw into relief how easy it is as readers to interpret any desire to salvage something good from so much bad as a weakness, an uncomfortably earnest strategic error. Like how Wendy poisons her co-workers in “Friday Black,” good faith and kindness are frequently things to be betrayed in this book, and to a certain extent, each of these stories asks an old question: Am I too kind, or too dumb? Or are these the same things?
One of my favorite iterations of this question is the dystopian story “The Era,” which follows an adolescent boy, Ben, through his daily life among genetically engineered superhumans. This future world is a radically honest one, where people say exactly what they think, and where the destruction of the weak by the strong is morally nonnegotiable. In history class (“HowItWas class”), Ben learns that “emotional truth clouding was the main thing that led to the Long Big War and the Big Quick War,” ancient, Lucasfilm-scale conflicts over water supply. “The wars going on now, Valid Storm Alpha and the True Freedom Campaign, are valid/true wars because we know we aren’t being emotional fighting them.” Choices made without self-interest are seen as evolutionarily inferior, and when a classmate wants Ben “to make her happy for no reason,” he enters her world of birthday cakes and jokes and forgotten heartwarming traditions. Soon, he rapidly descends the social ladder.
Adjei-Brenyah’s stories tell the truth; they don’t “intervene in the discourse” as if they were just waiting for their turn to speak and not actually listening. While all of them are distinct and distinctly good, the most polished stories are those that riff on the dissatisfactions of retail sales associates. They are the most multidimensional and the most precise. Adjei-Brenyah is such a virtuoso at curating telling details; those powers are on display the most in these stories.
“How to Sell Jackets as Told by Iceking” recounts the slow fall from grace of a celebrated salesman of expensive winter coats. “In the mall the only truths that matter are the kinds you can count,” he tells us, laying bare the contradictions of a line of work that pays lip service to “good customer service” while rewarding only good customer shilling. “Sales goals, register tills, inventory. Numbers are it. Everything else is mostly bullshit.” Iceking knows numbers are all that matter, but won’t admit to himself he hopes that this isn’t entirely true. This is obvious when he makes a strategic error in choosing to cover a late co-worker, Florence, punching her timecard for her at her request, even though she hasn’t yet arrived at work. He was too nice.
Florence “practically filled out her application while in labor. That’s why she’s so good,” he says, repeating his manager, Angela’s, early praise of the new hire. It says less about her than it does about what we consider to be a valuable employee, and the kind of ruthlessness that otherwise good people are encouraged to emulate. Florence’s impression is apparently quite good: After building a large sale with an affluent family, Florence arrives at our narrator’s side. “ ‘Angela told me to tell you to go on break.’ Her voice is sweet and acid. I stand for a second. Today they had officially promoted Florence,” and our proud, rainmaking narrator can’t dismiss her. A few minutes later, he’s punching out at the register, where the manager is ringing out the family’s large purchase. She asks if anyone helped them. “‘Absolutely, she even hauls the goods.’ [The father] chuckles as he points his thumb toward Florence … Mother, Father and Son look at me and see a stranger.”
The situation seems banal, the unfortunate circumstances of someone who didn’t learn how to play the game. But everything has been made into a game in this country, in this world, in this economic system, and the rules are rigged. The dystopian futures he brilliantly imagines here somehow seem more believable than the ones he writes about the hellish now, not because they are, but because we don’t want to believe that this is the reality of our burning little world. Friday Black is written with force, Ajdei-Brenyah’s language sharpened into tiny blades that cut deep and fast, down to the soft insides that, he urges us to remember, are still there.