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Review: Long Division by Kiese Laymon



Highlights: Sentences like this one: "It made me kind of mad that the museum was named after a grimy drunk dude who called a girl 'baby,' but I figured lots of museums were named for part-time losers."
Synopsis: Laymon presents two different young characters with the same name: City. Both young men face challenges. One deals with losing on a stage; the other deals with losing much more. Both encounter moments in which they must gain. They strive for the future and learn to live in the present. Laymon's debut novel is a masterclass performance in race, young adulthood, and identity.
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Both Citys' plights are incredible. We feel for the characters, and we hear the voices so perfectly.


The plot is occasionally difficult to follow, especially when traveling through time.

Posted April 21, 2014 by

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Well, I know that you can’t travel through time with a girl and save folks from the Klan and not kiss them unless you’re slightly deformed or unless you smell like death.

Try to count the contemporary novels exploring identity. They permeate bookstores. Some accomplish the feat successfully; others don’t. One new novel that tackles (and conquers) this quintessential American literary theme is Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Long Division particularly challenges the minority American’s predicament of attaining an identity, specifically for African Americans living in the South. The characters Laymon gives us struggle, balancing a life that is full of confusion, displacement, and dejection.

Laymon captures adolescent and minority identity with the creation of his sharp-witted protagonist, Citoyen ‘City’ Coldson. City, even from his first introduction, is a clearly evolving soul, on the cusp of manhood, who must make his weaknesses into his strengths, his failures into his successes, and his fears into his dreams. Most importantly, though, City must find his future—well, and his past.

City’s introduction is a bold one:

My name is City. I’m not white, homeless, or homosexual, but if I’m going to keep it one hundred, I guess you should also know that LaVander Peeler smells so good that sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a small beast farted in your mouth when you’re too close to him.

Laymon allows his readers to see City as someone who knows who he isn’t even if he doesn’t quite know who he is.

City and LaVander, City’s nemesis, compete in the 2013 “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence” finals. Pre-competition, their rivalry is built upon generic adolescent angst. City doesn’t like LaVander because he doesn’t want to like him. They are teenagers; reasons aren’t a necessity just yet.

Laymon shakes up the novel quickly. He builds a bridge between two unimaginable posts. At the competition, they are outsiders. Laymon presents their exclusion explicitly. City and LaVander, the only two African Americans in play, receive the words “niggardly” and “chitterlings” respectively. After taking his time in responding to his word, City says, “Okay. Y’all have time limits at nationals, huh? I know the word, but it’s just that my insides hurt when you say that word.” Knowing the words but choosing to not play into the game, City and LaVander both choose to lose. City has a meltdown onstage that turns him into a viral sensation that he can’t yet embrace.

After City’s debacle, he receives an anonymous book called Long Division. This mysterious novel engages him immediately. City admits, “Even though the book was set in 1985, I didn’t know what to do with the fact that the narrator was black like me, stout like me, in the ninth grade like me, and had the same first name as me. Plus, you hardly ever read books that were written like you actually thought. I had never read the words ‘chunky vomit,’ in the first chapter of a book, for example, but when I thought about how I’d most not want to be treated, I thought about ‘chunky vomit.’” Its protagonist is also named City, and this City is eerily similar to the City who holds the novel. Some things are different. In the book, City can time travel with his friends, Shalaya Crump and Baize Shephard, and he does. He goes from 1985 to 1965 and back again.

Already into his book, real world City is sent to Melahatchie, Mississippi, to stay with his grandmother, whom City loves, and to escape the possible fallout from his community. While with his grandmother, City faces issues that lead him to an understanding of who he is. He witnesses the harsh realities of racism, religious fanaticism, and poverty, but his experiences guide him and eventually, they strengthen him.

Laymon offers both Citys’ travels as a means to find that which each lacks—an understanding of self. The lessons are hard learned, but the pieces come together.

At the conclusion, after real world City uncovers a grimly truth, City says, “I felt as far away from Melahatchie and I felt as close to a real character as I had ever felt. And the craziest thing is that I wasn’t sure if that was a good, bad, or a sad thing.” Like all teenagers, City finds his identity through experiences. And like everybody else, he doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s a classic American dilemma, and Laymon captures it perfectly in Long Division.


Long Division (Paperback)

By (author): Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon’s debut novel is a Twain-esque exploration of celebrity, authorship, violence, religion, and coming of age in Post-Katrina Mississippi, written in a voice that’s alternately funny, lacerating, and wise. The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, 14-year-old Citoyen ?City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he’s sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.

Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called ?Long Division.” He learns that one of the book’s main characters is also named City Coldson?but ?Long Division” is set in 1985. This 1985 City, along with his friend and love-object, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called…Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet protect his family from the Klan.

City’s two stories ultimately converge in the mysterious work shed behind his grandmother’s, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance.
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Review: Long Division by Kiese Laymon 5.00/5 (100.00%) 1 vote

Bradley Sides

Bradley Sides is a graduate of the M. A. in English program from the University of North Alabama. His fiction appears in Belle Rêve Literary Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, Freedom Fiction Journal, Inwood Indiana, and Used Gravitrons. He is a contributor to Bookkaholic. He resides in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he is actively seeking representation for his debut middle-grade novel.


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