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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What I’ve Been Reading, February 2018 (Southeast Edition!)

Hey wow, two books published in 2017! I’m only a little late to the party, for once! Also, two books that take place in the US Southeast! I could’ve broken this post into two separate review posts, since I have a lot to say about both books, but they kinda sorta pair I guess not really but whatever here we go!

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard — I happened upon this book just by browsing through my local library’s non-fiction ebooks, looking for something to occupy my time over the winter break, and man am I glad I did. Sunshine State is a collection of essays mainly dealing with events, recollections, and social issues in the Tampa Bay area. Though the title comes from the nickname for Florida, Tampa Bay and Pinellas County are really the central locations of the book.

What I enjoyed most about these essays was Gerard’s ability to pierce through these very specific, or at times very personal, topics, and reveal something more universal, especially in essays like “BFF,” “Going Diamond,” and “Sunshine State.” “BFF” is the opening piece of the book, and is written as an address to an old, unnamed friend of Gerard’s. The writing is visceral, and the description of their painful, years-long parting is captivating. It’s a level of emotional, personal intensity that the collection never really returns to—at least not in full (it would be impossible to sustain anyway.)

This intensity is certainly sprinkled into most of the essays though, like in “Going Diamond,” an essay about AmWay, the direct selling (a.k.a. pyramid scheme) company. The essay describes the history of the corporation, as well as the Gerard family’s time as members of AmWay, interspersed with descriptions of Gerard and her husband posing as prospective homeowners, and touring enormous mansions in South Florida gated communities. The blend of all these elements creates this feeling of surreality around AmWay, a cloying, saccharine vision of country clubs and indoor pools and saving the earth with warm, honest capitalism. The American Way.Read More »