Skip to Main Content

Riots I Have Known

About The Book

Longlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Ryan Chapman’s “gritty, bracing debut” (Esquire) set during a prison riot is “dark, daring, and laugh-out-loud hilarious…one of the smartest—and best—novels of the year” (NPR).

A largescale riot rages through Westbrook prison in upstate New York, incited by a poem in the house literary journal. Our unnamed narrator, barricaded inside the computer lab, swears he’s blameless—even though, as editor-in-chief, he published the piece in question. As he awaits violent interruption by his many, many enemies, he liveblogs one final Editor’s Letter. Riots I Have Known is his memoir, confession, and act of literary revenge.

His tale spans a childhood in Sri Lanka, navigating the postwar black markets and hotel chains; employment as a Park Avenue doorman, serving the widows of the one percent; life in prison, with the silver lining of his beloved McNairy; and his stewardship of The Holding Pen, a “masterpiece of post-penal literature” favored by Brooklynites everywhere. All will be revealed, and everyone will see he’s really a good guy, doing it for the right reasons.

“Fitfully funny and murderously wry,” Riots I Have Known is “a frenzied yet wistful monologue from a lover of literature under siege” (Kirkus Reviews).


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 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.

According to the threads, the riot started thirty minutes ago in the yard and somewhere inside A Block, then spread quickly from there. Aerial footage shows four Muslim Brothers, ID’d by their bloodied keffiyehs, shot down in the grass a few feet from a hole in the north-northwest fence line. As usual, the Brothers being headstrong and stupid in equal measure. #Westbrook Instagrams from curious townies reveal plumes of gray smoke from what looks like a handful of fires in A Block, doubtless the flamers are having the most outright fun today. Of course, the fires are nothing a wall-mounted extinguisher couldn’t handle, but there’s never one when you need it, and anyway, those things are like gold in the present crisis-driven economy. The helicopter cameras are also picking up a group of skinheads—Steve? Looks like Steve—chucking screws’ bodies out of the cafeteria skylight into a haphazard levee on the outside wall. How did they reach the skylight? I wonder. For all their rehashed lectures on miscegenation, those guys sure are inventive.

HuffPost has a top-of-the-fold photo of the north corridor windows, hidden behind a stretched bedsheet bearing a message written in what looks like oven grease: “Under the Paving Stones, Parole!” By the angle of their cameras I can surmise the news crews have camped out on the dead stretch of land to the northwest, in front of the yard. Surely the GSSR, with their ambulance-chaser’s gift for opportunism, is somewhere close. I hesitate to mention them (and their unknown/“unknowable” acronym). Let’s move on.

If you’re watching the footage from WXHY, you have a sense of Westbrook’s blueprint. Readers have remarked upon the cognitive dissonance between the Westbrook of the mind and the Westbrook of the eye. The prison is not unlike a child’s snow angel, with his left arm forming A Block, his head B Block, and his right arm C Block, laid out facing east; Central Booking, Times Square, and the Infirmary in the chest; offices, the cafeteria, and the library in the crotch; and D Block and E Block as the lower appendages. For the completist, I suppose A visitor’s center would be the left armpit and D visitor’s center the spleen, and the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts the big toe of the right foot. (A rather propitious big toe, I should say, as this remote corner may just grant me the time I need.)

Some of you are right to ask about the much-ballyhooed F Block, which, to torture the analogy further, lay a hundred yards west like a discarded boot, composed of I-beams and pallets of cement blocks covered by weather-beaten tarps. Warden Gertjens, ever the optimist, had hoped to assemble a deluxe “front of house” for the good-behaviors and, fingers crossed, a tax-deductible location for Wes Anderson’s Folsom Fantasia. The latest news from Albany is no news: only the Diller Scofidio + Renfro toolshed has been completed, paid for with donations by the wife of some pharma CMO, and, in a bit of a stalemate, the governor’s waiting on Michael Kimmelman’s review of said toolshed before releasing capital funds. I’ve seen F Block’s blueprints and can attest to its scope and ambition, in particular the motif of elongated curved hallways, which, Warden Gertjens said—and here I presume he’s quoting the brief—“isolate one in space, removed from where one has come from and where one is going; no past, no future, only present.” I feel a lachrymal swell and a priapic swell at such a vision, and tip my hat to the architects for their spatiotemporal empathy for the incarcerated. (Should the institution survive today’s PR Hindenburg, naming rights are still available!)

Westbrook is the elder sibling to the new maximum-security facilities in the tri-county area, part of the construction boom for those politicians without recourse to gambling revenue. I’m told there’s a recipe for installing a correctional facility on the outskirts of town; the base ingredients include one hundred unemployed blue-collar workers and a mayor with steep alimony. I confess it was a relief to be processed here just over twenty-four months ago. The main campus is careworn with the peregrinations of decades of inmates, every vertical surface marked by thousands of fingernail scratches into a deep-time calligraphic frenzy. Transfers tell us fights occur with more frequency at the new institutions, as if there were a subconscious need to fill the virginal space with local history and gobbets of injury. If I may be so bold, the difference between these prisons and Westbrook is the difference between a house and a home.

I can’t smell the fires, that’s a good sign. The herd hasn’t spread to C Block, though I should allow for the possibility of some man-made ventilation for respiration and visibility. I’m confident I have enough time to complete my atonement and set down my reading of events as they occurred.

These riots keep to a pattern. So says Wilfred, my confidant and fount of hard-won wisdom. He survived Elmira in 1981 and Pleasant Valley in 1995 and 1999 completely unscathed, the old coot knows a thing or two.

He maintains three rules for these situations:

1. Stay in your cell and lock yourself in. Counterintuitive, yes, and against all temptation. In the rare instance someone gets to the screw station and opens the locks, it’s best to tie a rolled-up sheet from the door to the window bar, doubling up if possible to ensure a taut line. Ah, you reply, but the mattress is right there! Block the gate with your mattress and they’ll just smoke you out. Wilfred says dying of smoke inhalation in a prison riot is like masturbating at an orgy.

If the riot is between you and your cell, avoid the flats, stairways, bathrooms, galleys, cafeteria, wood shop, metal shop, and all windows. Four-on-one assaults pop up like dandelions; inmates have such elephant memories.

2. Hide your cigarettes under the bed slab.

3. If you possess the fortitude to knock yourself unconscious, it’s a useful alibi for the exhausting post-riot investigations. Wilfred said this was easier in his youth, when a sprint into the wall was enough to do the job. Older inmates should coordinate with a “riot buddy” to strangle each other as simultaneously as they can manage.

Were I not compelled to finish this Holding Pen issue/apologia for you, I would curl up under this desk and choke myself into blissful respite. I am fortunate to have made it to the Media Center; I was midshave when I heard the call: it passed from Times Square like a caffeinated form of the telephone game, inmate by inmate, reaching me as “Jefe’s pulled a coupe of tats! We’re the rite of spring!” I didn’t request or wait for clarification, sometimes you just have to towel off, button up your jumpsuit—I perform my morning toilet half-shod, for the increased range of motion—and dash through E Block. I fear my detractors will have one final joke at my expense, as my three-quarter neck beard will surely give my corpse an air of non compos mentis, despite the abundant literary evidence to the contrary. And yet, perhaps my killers will so ruinously strike me about the head, neck, and face, and then the joke will be on them.

Thinking about it now, I wonder if I’ve ever passed along Wilfred’s advice to McNairy. I certainly wouldn’t expect Wilfred to volunteer it to anyone else; I had to trade a carton of cigarettes for that three-tined fork of wisdom. (He swore there were nine more rules, but I was low.) Does McNairy know what to do? Is he safe? McNairy, my friend and companion—he’s the only one who ever understood me, which is to say he understood me obliquely, he never asked questions about The Holding Pen, or life in Sri Lanka, or those nine blue hairs, or anything about the outside, just “Come over after work detail?” and “Do you like that?” and a question about choking, but under different circumstances. McNairy, he’s the real storyteller manqué of Westbrook. Faithful readers know he never formally submitted a piece, his greater contribution was what the Teutons call his geist; it haunts every issue. Or perhaps a benign form of haunting, if such a word exists in English. Yes, McNairy’s naptime monologues befit the Algonquin Roundtable, and were I a better listener I would faithfully transcribe here his numerous bon mots. To cite but one example: the Protestant ethic and personal élan he brought to the hard-line dogfighting scene of Jersey City. McNairy carved his own niche—that is to say, Saint Bernards, plodding beasts who circled in a hypnotic rhythm conveying, McNairy explained, I remember, the quintessence of the sport. The dogs moved as if in slow motion, resigned and exhausted like some young ER doctor on the tail end of a marathon shift, each bite and swipe of the paw drawing cheers from the potbellied Italians and the salt-haired blacks of the old neighborhoods. McNairy would have been close to the cafeteria when the riot broke out. Perhaps he’s holed up in a solitary cell or fighting his way through a scrum of B Blockers—those guys are all limbs and teeth, not a pound of muscle between the lot of them. McNairy, be safe!

Back to the matter at hand: I feel your concerns. I feel your concerns and I read your concerns and I promise to reply to your concerns. The blog comments and #westbrookriot tweets are both sobering and salutary, they cement my resolve and double my resolve to “stay the course,” as it were. I’ll take this cemented doubling and provide the definitive account of the rise and, it pains me to write, the fall of The Holding Pen. (@blondita96 and @marco_tized, I love you too!) While I’m naming names, I’d like to thank Oberlin sophomore Alexis Somers for developing the content-management system’s auto-publish setting, an incredibly useful function on days like today with their high probability of interruption and dismemberment.

It is important to write the definitive account, or rather an official accounting of events, as they happened. Let it be said: this text is authoritative, sanctioned, sealed with a kiss. The reader is likely aware of the forthcoming bit of opportunism par excellence by Betsy Pankhurst, Handcuffed: Sex and Madness with the Widow Killer (Knopf), which I must stress is the unauthorized account, or should I say an unauthorized account. Resist its easy prurience! I have slogged through an advance reader’s copy with rising bile, and I can objectively say it is pure slander of the lowest order. The highest order? Either way, Handcuffed is a fresh wound; that Betsy is my former paramour is the salt shaken liberally upon it. A cursory Google search reveals she’s sold her “life rights” to Netflix in a “major deal.” (More salt!) If you feel any loyalty to The Holding Pen and to my accomplishments—indeed, to our accomplishments—then you will boycott Betsy’s noncanonical screed. Even here, in my last moments, the jelly of her deceit sticks to the roof of my mouth. I dwell upon the subject of Ms. Pankhurst for the sole purpose of dispelling it, and her, from our minds. Forever.

About The Author

Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

Ryan Chapman is a Sri Lankan-American writer originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has appeared online at The New YorkerGQMcSweeney’s, BookForumBOMBGuernica, and The Believer. A recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and the Millay Colony for the Arts, he lives in Kingston, New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 17, 2020)
  • Length: 128 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501197314

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

“A compact cluster bomb of satire. . . . if you’re part of the Venn diagram that subscribes to n+1 and McSweeney’s, this is the funnest book you’ll read all year.”—The Washington Post

“Dark, daring, and laugh-out-loud hilarious, Riots I Have Known is one of the smartest — and best — novels of the year.”—NPR

“[A] gritty, bracing debut novel . . . a satirical look at mass incarceration and the liberating power of the written word.”—Esquire

“Ryan Chapman establishes himself as a master of wit, satire, and heart.”—Apple Books

"Darkly hilarious."—Newsday

“Fitfully funny and murderously wry . . . a frenzied yet wistful monologue from a lover of literature under siege.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Dazzling...Supremely mischievous and sublimely written, this is a stellar work.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Chapman’s smart, freewheeling first novel sends up both prison and literary life."—Seattle Metropolitan Magazine

“Chapman’s bravura performance is piquant, rollicking, and richly provoking.”—Booklist

“Savage, fearless, and funny as hell, Riots I Have Known also possesses, not so strangely, a poignant core. In this mother of all editor’s notes, Ryan Chapman creates a narrative voice that is by turns tender, cruel, profane, wildly inventive and, finally, unforgettable.”—Sam Lipsyte, New York Times Bestseller author of The Ask and Home Land

“Chapman’s Riots I Have Known joins Kushner’s Mars Room on the short list of truly remarkable American prison novels. Chapman’s debut is literally riotous: an improbably beguiling, utterly ribald provocation, something like Lenny Bruce’s 'Father Flotsky’s Triumph' as retold by Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man."—Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress Of Solitude

“With Riots I Have Known, Ryan Chapman has delivered a keen satire of America’s criminal justice crisis. The novel is remarKable for many things not the least of which are its wit, humor, and masterful language. I was impressed again and again, and I wager so to will readers with working hearts and brains.”—Mitchell S. Jackson, award-winning author of Survival Math

“Hilarious, original, and cunningly wrought, Ryan Chapman has written a rocket-powered ode to literary creation and mass incarceration. Weaving satire and seriousness into a singularly rambunctious monologue, rollicking and oddly recognizable at once, Riots I Have Known is a breath of fresh air.”—Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and Intimations

Riots I Have Known is a multivalent title: Ryan Chapman’s debut is about a prison riot, unfurls a riot of word-drunk prose, and, most of all, is itself a riot, a virtuoso vocal performance of acidic seriocomedy whose forbears are Thomas Bernhard’s discursive monologues, Frederick Exley’s deadpan wit, and Kafka’s Kafkaesqueness, but which is ultimately, as they say, all Chapman’s own. It’s hard to find a single sentence that isn’t polished to a brilliant luster in this lacerating shiv of a novel.”—Teddy Wayne, author of Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

Riots moves at breakneck pace as a pent-up con runs free across every page. Chapman is his very own, and this is a book readers will devour.”—Amelia Gray, author of Gutshot and Isadora

Riots I Have Known is a wild yawp from the literary frontier that brings to mind both Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Bernhard. It is relentless, hilarious, and unabashedly smart. It's my new favorite manifesto and I loved every last page.”—Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles

“Ryan Chapman is an exceptional stylist, and his range of reference runs from Fredric Jameson and Kafka to Carly Rae Jepsen and Kinfolk. Riots I Have Known is a smart, rambunctious, and (it just so happens) riotously funny debut novel. It's a book you don't so much read as ride like a roller coaster—i.e. very quickly, while hanging on for dear life and maybe screaming—and as soon as it's over you'll want to ride again.”—Justin Taylor, author of Flings

“Had Humbert Humbert started a literary journal from prison and penned a jailbreak scene with the spectacular absurdity of the one in Natural Born Killers, there would be a clear antecedent for Riots I Have Known. As it is, Ryan Chapman's book is fiercely original, darkly hilarious, and morally complex. Strong voice, both sympathetic and sharp as a shiv, calls the reader farther and farther into a prison on fire. Chapman's ability to play simultaneously in the two keys of gleeful wit and menace reminded me of Aravind Adiga's polytonality in White Tiger.”—Will Chancellor, author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images