Long Division, Kiese Laymon, Bolden Books, 2013, 267 pp
Here is another book I would not have read or possibly even heard of if not for the Tournament of Books. It is gut wrenching and powerful. The writing reminded me sometimes of James Baldwin, other times of Alice Walker. The story is a testament to the reality of racism and its continued presence in American culture, despite our half-black president, despite the unparalleled success of Oprah Winfrey.
City is an Alabama boy raised as much by his small town grandma as by his mom. He is smart, he goes to an exclusive high school, and his Black swagger is melded with the insecurities and confusions about life for a Black male in 21st century America.
Due in part to a book called Long Division, given to him by his school counselor, and in part to the ghostly presences in the woods by his grandma's house, City time travels back to 1964 and 1985. A second narrator named City lives in the 1985 sections. Also included in the rather large cast of characters are a missing classmate named Baize, an enigmatic female whose favorite punctuation mark is the ellipsis, and Shalaya Crump, unrequited crush of the 1985 City.
It is a tangled story and sometimes hard to tell which City is narrating or which time period is going on. In the end, that confusion is the book's charm as well as its theme. Time passes, cultures change, technologies progress, but the color of one's skin is still the deal breaker.
In 2013, City and his frenemy Lavender Peeler take part in a grammar competition called "Can You Use That Word in a Sentence," supposed to be free of cultural bias. Turns out it has a liberal agenda designed to prove we are no longer a racist society. After City creates a historic meltdown over the word "niggardly," the video of which goes viral, the contest goes by default to the other minority, a Mexican contestant.
Kiese Laymon, born and raised in Mississippi, is now an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College. He has clearly taken to heart the necessity for a Black person to run twice as fast to get half as far. In fact, he has probably run four times as fast. I will read any novel he writes. As Toni Morrison ages, I've wondered who could take her place. I may have found him.
(Long Division is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)