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‘Friday Black:’ An Ingenious Attack on American Society

4.5/5 Stars

Friday Black Cover
"Friday Black" Cover
“If I had words left in me, I would not be here,” reads a line from “Friday Black’s” first piece, “The Finkelstein 5,” capturing the feeling that pulses through each and every story in the collection. “Friday Black,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut short story collection, is unflinching in its criticism of pervasive elements in modern America, tackling racial injustices, capitalism, school shootings, and more. Yet, even in pressing hot button issues, these stories remain firmly rooted in the people who inhabit them, calling for empathy even, and especially, for the characters who seem to least deserve it.

Several stories are set in a near future that is all too plausible and far too close for comfort. The titular story, “Friday Black,” depicts a Black Friday rush from the perspective of a hard and seasoned retail employee who watches corpses get swept aside casually in a sea of desperate shoppers who turn to rabid and incoherent animals in search of “newly purchased happiness.” In “Zimmer Land” (likely an allusion to George Zimmerman who fatally shot Trayvon Martin), an amusement park sells the opportunity to get “justice” in simulations that include defending a neighborhood against a stranger or stopping a school shooter. Perhaps most horrifying and familiar of all is “The Finkelstein 5,” which depicts a man’s acquittal after decapitating five young black children with a chainsaw in the name of self defense in a world where “if you believe something, anything, then that’s what matters most.” The exaggeration in these scenarios creates visceral discomfort that is only exacerbated when you realize how familiar they seem.

Adjei-Brenyah is far from the first to attempt to tackle the issues plaguing American society through literature, but the ingenuity of his premises works to set this collection apart from the rest. The prose is not particularly lofty, but it features an urgency and concision that presents the fast-paced plot and voice without distraction like in the opening of “Lark Street”: “An impossible hand punched my earlobe. An unborn fetus, aborted the day before, was standing at my bedside.” It is fantastically unexpected ideas like aborted fetuses demanding answers from their father that make the 192 pages flash by.

That is not to say “Friday Black” is an easy read — it is meant to be challenging. Practically every chapter contemplates difficult aspects of humanity, and there is no shortage of gore and visceral depictions of violence. In “The Finkelstein 5” and “Friday Black,” Adjei-Brenyah rides the line between being sharply poignant and on the nose, between literary fiction and straight satire. But considering how truly ridiculous these situations are, and how we as a society come to accept them, this only strengthens his criticism.

The book’s prime accomplishment is in inspiring empathy for the marginalized and the feared. Themes of the black experience are consistently detailed explicitly, from the feeling of being the only black man in the room to maintaining constant consciousness of one’s “Blackness” on a 10-point scale. Yet, Adjei-Brenyah goes further with the standout story “Light Spitter,” which follows the spirits of a school shooter and his victim just after death, expounding on the social isolation so often associated with shootings with minimal cliché. In “Through the Flash,” even a sadist earns a touch of humanity in her eagerness to be better when she confesses to “the worst thing anyone has ever done...to everyone.” Such appeals could be trite in the hands of another author, but Adjei-Brenyah is effective in asking not for forgiveness, but for understanding.

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Adjei-Brenyah uses a lens of exaggeration to lay bare harsh truths about our reality and dares his reader not to flinch. “Friday Black” is a strong debut collection that introduces a demanding young voice. Hopefully, for all our sakes, this author has plenty more words left in him to share.

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