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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Review: Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon is a phenomenal writer, and you can tell so the moment you begin any of his three books. I reviewed his memoir Heavy a couple years ago, and have finally read his other two books, starting with Long Division, a novel. I read the 2021 edition, which I’ll talk more about later. The book is split into two halves which read starting from either side of the book, and ending in the middle.

“Book One,” (though Laymon says you can read them in any order, I chose the obvious order) follows a black Mississippian boy named City, in the year 2013. He and his school rival, Lavander Peeler, both make a scene at the national “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, and City is sent to stay with his grandmother in the rural town of Melahatchie. There, he contends with violent racists, his grandmother’s church, the reaction to his outburst at the competition (which has gone viral in the way things really could go viral back in 2013), and the disappearance of his neighbor, a girl named Baize Shephard. Also, he’s found a strange book titled Long Division, in which he is the main character.

In “Book Two,” a black Mississippian boy named City living in Melahatchie is in love with his friend Shalaya Crump, in the year 1985. Shalaya reveals to him that she’s found a way to travel to the future (2013), and she’s worried that in the future she’s dead. She can also travel to the past, 1964, where her and City’s grandpas are about to be killed by the klan. In 1964, the two meet Evan Altshuler, who wants to help them save their grandpas and his own family from. In 2013, they meet Baize Shephard.

Regardless of which half you start with, character is the first thing that jumps out, especially City, the narrator. He has a lot of opinions, a lot that he needs to let you know about Lavander Peeler, about Principle Reeves, about the “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, about Melahatchie, about Baize Shephard, and about himself. He’s self conscious in a way that stops short of providing a perfect accounting of his inner working at all times, but still goes a lot deeper than most 14-year-old protagonists do. Despite his braggadocio, City is scared and sad about a lot of things. Sometimes he admits this to himself, sometimes he admits only to the way it feels in his body.

It’s not just City though. From Lavander Peeler to Grandma, all these characters leap off the page, and then deepen, reveal richer hues within the bright colors that initially grabbed the reader’s attention. The scenes between City and Baize are dynamite, as she is just as boastful and opinionated as him—and this vibrancy, this vigor of spirit, makes the way the adults treat these young people that much more heartbreaking. The book puts a lot of focus on the cruelty inflicted on children, especially black children, through “education.” The prime example of this is the sentence competition in Book One, which kind of blew my mind and had me, for the first time, thinking about how bizarre and messed up spelling bees are. We meet 2013 City as a smart, verbally dextrous kid locked in a rivalry with the effete Lavander Peeler—and then we see that expansive, energetic persona squashed, curbed, even memified. City’s creative, imaginative, and righteously angry language is denied as not “correct, appropriate, or dynamic”—a dramatic, heightened version of the minute and myriad ways in which adults constantly rebuke children for their creativity, in which white people constantly seek the destruction or neutralization of black imagination.

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What I’ve Been Reading, April 2019

Been a while since I did one of these, I guess because I’ve been reading lots of short stories. Anyway, here’s what all I’ve been reading the past few months (my god it’s been four months since I read Heavy where did the time go I’m about to graduate aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.) Also, I recently read Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke, which I had a lot to say about, so that’ll be posted as its own review a few days from now.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon — As the subtitle describes it, Heavy is “an American memoir,” following Kiese Laymon from his childhood up to his early adulthood, returning again and again to themes of abuse, education, body image, racism, and America.

Incredibly, even with these heavy themes, whenever I started listening to this book, I just couldn’t stop. I even listened to it on my airplane ride from Cedar Rapids to Atlanta! Let me tell you, on airplanes I only ever listen to podcasts, or music. Stuff that does not require a lot of cerebral commitment. But when I ran out of saved podcasts, I started listening to Heavy, and the hours just flew by.

Part of the engrossing pull of this book may have to do with how novel-like it is. It’s composed primarily of scenes, scenes that are fully fleshed out with long stretches of vivid dialog, and intriguing, instantly identifiable characters. And the narrative voice shifts to fit the different phases of Kiese’s life. There’s no sense of retrospective distance between the narrator and the events he’s describing, and the result is that as a reader you can be fully immersed in these remembered moments as they play out. That said, Laymon still manages to address more abstract ideas—the book is not just a series of things that happened, it does also pull revelations out of those events, which steadily accumulate and build on one another throughout the book. As I said, it is novel-like, and the novel that it is like is a novel which expertly joins theme with narrative, emotions with ideas, character with critique.Read More »