The publicist describes Kiese Laymon as a "black 21st-century Mark Twain," a curious sort of notion I was eager to test, and now, having read the book, am just as eager to reject. Laymon isn't some reconstituted version of a white man. Did the person who wrote this description even bother to read the book? Or was he just looking to strut some stuff, even stupid stuff, for the sake of a sale?
Laymon has a voice all his own. He's just now starting to hit his stride. Where this voice takes him, and us, is a long way from certain. I can say this much with confidence: He has my attention.
Some of the writing is obvious. Young men of color are born on parole. There may no longer be plantations, and Jim Crow is no longer the stated law of the land, but the color line still separates and divides: The white world can swing and miss on the road to maturity; young black men cannot. We still have zero tolerance when it comes to race. Say otherwise, and prove yourself to be a fool.
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, is a collection of essays about music, race, rage, self-destruction and the discovery of voice. I liked most of what I read, even when it backed me into a corner white men don't like to face. Tucked away at the end of the fictive debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney moderated by Laymon are the following lines, spoken to Romney: "You? You were born rich. You will die rich. Help the country by teaching your people to be just and thoughtful losers."
Laymon states a truth that defines the politics of our time: Race still matters, and as demographic change races toward a world in which Caucasians will soon be a minority in the United States, history's grinding zero-sum game of distributing life chances presents new, and, to some, terrifying challenges: How will the white world learn to lose, when it has taken winning for granted for so long? Can anyone learn to lose with grace?
I sensed more restraint than necessary in the prose. Laymon wants to scream, to rant, to rail at the world, but he is perhaps still afraid that doing so will yield consequences he can't accept. He writes movingly of Tupac Shakur's early death, wondering how such an incandescent soul could survive into middle age in the United States. He writes movingly of the fear among lower-income persons of color that once Obama was elected president, their prospects would become more grim as white world found a way to lash back. One senses that Laymon has yet fully to emerge: How does any writer, any voice, survive the confines of academe -- Laymon now teaches at, of all places, Vassar College, a middlebrow institution that excels in being politically correct?
Step out Kiese. SIng street songs. Put aside the pretty prose you learned to craft while earning an MFA at Indiana University. An MFA, for the love of God! Ashes, ashes, we all fall down, the prophet whimpers?
I ordered Laymon's first novel, also published this year, Long Division, after reading this book. I want more, and better. I am hoping for something rawer, more explosive, more true to the silent rage that simmers just this side of annihilation. I know Laymon's got it in him; he's still learning to be free. I wanted to read The Fire Next Time; Laymon wants to write it.
Speak, Kiese; sing a song of hopeful sorrow, of transforming and transcendent rage, but do stop whispering.