The stunning, aptly titled new memoir “Heavy” — Kiese Laymon’s sweeping self-exploration about growing up in Mississippi in the 1980s — is a veritable cornucopia of black urban pathologies, set in an impoverished state that’s become shorthand for American racism.
The book is an unflinching exploration of poverty, toxic masculinity, sexual violence, anorexia and bulimia and an overweight boy’s codependent relationship with his disciplinarian mother. A brilliant academic and fierce warrior for African-American freedom, she’s also a troubled single parent who, at times, oppressed and brutalized her only child.
Laymon taps those deep emotional and physical wounds — along with the suffocating weight of history, repressed memory, sexism, racism and his own abused body — to mirror profound truths about himself and his country.
“Heavy” — a finalist for the Kirkus Prize — reflects how the violent cruelty of slavery, coupled with an abject refusal to reckon with it, echoes through time, inflicting destruction on generations of African-Americans. Manifestations of that history are hard to see, yet the results are obvious: chronic obesity, generational poverty, crippling addiction, self-destructive behavior that’s impossible to curb.
An epic poem to his mother, the book begins at her elbow in front of a slot machine in Las Vegas, a Christmas vacation at a relative’s home worlds away from his home in Jackson, Miss. A beyond-zealous African-American studies instructor working toward a doctorate but struggling to keep the lights on at home, his mother — whose name is never revealed — scrambles to rake in a jackpot of quarters as Laymon, then a schoolboy, drops some major foreshadowing.
“Even though we were winning, even though we’d just won, you did not look at me,” he writes. “You kept pulling that handle and looking behind you. … ‘I think I can hit again. I promise. Just one more minute.’ Every time you promised, I believed you.”
What follows is Laymon’s arduous path out of Jackson and into the world, navigating from the Deep South to the campus of Vassar College in upstate New York, where he’s shed 100 pounds and is a professor on a tenure track. Although his cinematic journey is propelled by books and writing, a succession of invisible demons lurk at every turn.
Enlisted in Mississippi as a child soldier of sorts in his mom’s perpetual black-liberation struggle, the one demon she relentlessly trained him to fight — racism — is omnipresent, but transmogrifies. Casual Southern bigotry morphs into the invisible, more terrifying Northern strain; it reveals itself on the purportedly liberal campus of an elite white college, and leads to a final confrontation in a casino, where the weight of all that Laymon has experienced triggers collapse.
Laymon is a gifted wordsmith born and educated in the land of Welty and Faulkner, and his use of language, character and sense of place put “Heavy” neatly into the storied Southern Gothic canon. Yet the defining elements of his art — cadence, dialogue, eye for detail, mordant wit — are firmly rooted in the African-American experience. Laymon has created Gothic’s not-so-distant black relative, a cousin who represents what nobody wants to acknowledge at the family reunion.
Still, for a book that has the author’s disturbing childhood as a metaphor for African-Americans’ pursuit of unattained happiness and perhaps unattainable racial freedom, “Heavy” is surprisingly light on its feet.
Joseph Williams is senior editor for U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C., covering the Supreme Court and national politics.
By: Kiese Laymon.
Publisher: Scribner, 241 pages, $26.