Review: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon approaches each of his books as a way to celebrate and innovate the form, whether novel, memoir, or, in the case of this book, essay collection. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is thematically cohesive and intensely self-referential. It reckons with self-destruction, regret and revision, the worst of white folks, Mississippi, America, writing, truth, and lies. I read the 2021 revised edition, which contains seven essays from the 2013 edition and six new ones, as well as a revised author’s note. Another change is that the essays are sequenced in reverse chronological order, ending with the essay which opened the first edition.

The best way I can describe how these thirteen essays form a whole is to say that it feels like a well composed album. Themes recur and recur. Essays reference each other, and sometimes divulge the origins of each other. Specific phrases like “healthy choices,” “multiple dreamers,” and “the worst of white folks” stitch their way through the whole book. The book moves backwards in time, and meanders north from, then back around to, Mississippi.

That movement provides a structure for the book, a sweeping momentum which leaves you feeling like you’ve really gone somewhere by the end, though it is not the dominating logic of the book. That is, the essays are densely interconnected beyond just geographical or chronological ties. I think that’s what’s so album-like about it—the associative ties between essays, their dense inter- and intra-textuality, combined with the larger arc which gives the thing a simpler form you can hold in your mind. It is singular and plural, which is a hell of an accomplishment.

It’s also like an album because there’s features! Laymon’s mother, his aunt, and several friends lend their voices to a few essays; these sections are well written in their own right, and add depth and energy to the essays they appear in. And the choice to include them is thematically relevant too—in the final essay, “We Will Never Ever Know,” Laymon writes to his uncle, “We talked, but we didn’t reckon with each other.” (152) Bringing other voices into this book, voices in dialogue and disagreement with Laymon’s, is a demonstration of what that reckoning can look like.

This polyphony is most prominent in “Echo,” which features four writers in addition to Laymon: Mychal Denzel Smith, Darnell Moore, Kai M. Green, and Marlon Peterson. Smith starts it off with a letter addressed “Peace Fam,” and then each writer responds, one after the other, like a posse cut. They each write about being black, being a man, and being both; while each essay builds on the last, and they all circle around similar themes, they somehow never repeat each other. The echo shifts pitch and volume each time.

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