In today’s featured fiction, we present an excerpt from Ryan Chapman’s novel Riots I Have Known, out today from Simon & Schuster.
Publishers Weekly called the book—which features an unnamed narrator attempting to put into words his philosophy and history during a prison riot—”supremely mischievous and sublimely written.” And our own Nick Moran wrote, in our First Half Preview, that “Chapman’s satirical jab packs a full-fledged punch.”
Riots I Have Known
Lopez, right before they stabbed him in the yard—this was maybe last winter or the winter previous—you know what he said? He said: “Time makes fools of us all.” To say it at the end—he knew it was the end, as he must have known and as we all must know—such clarity! Lopez cut through years of hoary usage and conferred a real sense of gravitas upon the moment. We all felt it, all of us rubbernecking in the yard. I confess I missed the casual-Friday jab to a bit of shadow from a racing cloud, it was dark and then light and Lopez was resting against the squeaky weight bench. Everyone avoided that bench, its high-pitched chirps neutered the masculinity an otherwise strong set was meant to advertise. Lopez: the bravery! Those moments stick with you, dear reader. Months later I remember watching a Brando-esque scene chewer in some Lifetime movie—it’s one of the few channels we’re allowed—and the actor whispered to his teary ex-wife, “Time makes fools of us all.” I shook my head and exclaimed to no one in particular with surprising volume, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lopez, who was almost definitely stabbed in the yard last winter and not the winter previous, you remember from Volume I, Issue Two, “So My Chains May Weep Tonight,” that execrable short story. For readers stuck outside the pay wall, I’ll summarize briefly: “Rodrigo,” on a dime for arson, covers the “Southton” yard’s cement square with soulful chalk portraits of a daughter he’s never met. He guesses at the features: her mother’s nose, his own plump cheeks, big doe eyes. Lopez wrote long, dolorous paragraphs about those drawings, drawings never trampled by fellow inmates. (Credulity: strained.) Anyway, the portrait’s subject grows from infancy to young adulthood, or so Rodrigo believes; upon his release the buoyant Rodrigo receives a conveniently timed missive from his ex-wife: she aborted the fetus a week into his incarceration. (NB: The Warden loved this O. Henry–esque twist and demanded the story’s inclusion. Your humble editor’s protests fell on deaf ears.)
Thinking about it now, as the riot gathers momentum in A Block, and the WXHY Action News ActionCopter buzzes past in a tireless orbit, its camera surfacing whatever rabble it can find, I commend Lopez for wresting meaning out of such a trampled phrase, “Time makes fools of us all,” instilling a measure of sublimity in the death act, a sublimity otherwise absent from his treacly prose. Might he be Westbrook’s own Harry Crosby? Readers quick with Wikipedia will learn that Crosby, a Boston scion-cum-flâneur, failed as a poet but succeeded as a patron of the arts, publishing Joyce, Eliot, some other guys, he exited spectacularly with his mistress in a ritualized murder-suicide. True, Lopez was much less foppish and much more bellicose. Still, I would suggest the old impresario lives on in our departed colleague. We envy those who go out in their own way, we all hope for the same for ourselves and hubristically we all secretly expect to go out in our own way ourselves. I’ve seen many men, at least four, bawl and curse their attackers, be they physical, chthonic, or oncological. We expect such a response: it is common and it is natural. How am I to go? I wonder. Enviable old Lopez, he took possession of his ending there in the yard, stabbed last winter, possibly the winter before, whichever one was the year of the new jackets. He collapsed by the gates, I remember, under the small pointillist cluster of black ash on the wall where everyone stubbed their cigarettes. The tenor of my own shuffling off this mortal coil will be determined by whoever first breaks down my meager barricade here in the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts: two upended footlockers, a standard teacher’s desk, a nearly complete set of Encyclopedia Britannicas (2006 edition), and a scrum of Aeron chairs fish-hooked over each other just so. If I am lucky it’ll be Warden Gertjens first over the transom, he no doubt sympathizes with my present situation and, I would hope, admits complicity in my present situation. He could be counted on for assistance in a boost hurdling the A/C panel, knocking out the tempered double-paned glass, and running into the embrace of my fans, followers, and future lovers. Everyone else would surely stab me in the face.
I deserve it, and this is the truth, or a truth, and the one I claim and will verify for the scurrilous Fox News fact-checkers whose emails presently flood my in-box. I am the architect of the Caligulan melee enveloping Westbrook’s galleries and flats. Must this final issue of The Holding Pen be my own final chapter? Can any man control the narrative of his life, even one as influential as mine? I suppose not. And so the The Holding Pen winds down in real time, complemented by Breaking News updates from breathless, iron-coiffed correspondents on the scene; eighty thousand tweets and counting; protests by the Appeals on the north lawn; and blush-inducing slashfic on TheWildWestbrook.com of improbable but emboldening reunions with my sweet McNairy.
Were I petty, or spiteful, or the kind to assign blame, I’d say this is all the Latin Kings’ fault, an accusation supported by Diosito’s narco-sonnet “Mi Corazón en Fuego y Mi Plan de Fuga” from Volume I, Issue Eight (“Journeys”). The same issue, I remember, with the popular fold-out guide to rat-tailing one’s bedsheet for sliding tobacco down the flats. Spanish-speaking readers must have gleaned the Latin Kings’ intentions from stanza one, to which your editor can only express irritation for having never received even a friendly word of warning. Yet I accept in full the public drubbing that is my due, however accidental and unforeseen its cause may have been, a public drubbing that will likely take the form of the aforementioned face stabbing. I wish only to spend my remaining time clearing up a few inaccuracies.
Excerpted from Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman. Copyright © 2019 by Ryan Chapman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.