Heavy by Kiese Laymon
The first thing that comes to mind to describe this book is “messy.” Not in a bad way–it’s well written, and the narrative is organized–but the life it describes is messy.
It’s addressed to his mother, who we start to learn as the book goes on was physically abusive, but despite that, the tone is generally not angry. What’s so arresting is, I think, that the book is very focused on the experience of being a black boy growing up in the south, but the traumas it chronicles are both of and not of that fact. He faces struggles (physical and sexual abuse; hyper-critical and unreliable mother; eating disorder; gambling addiction) that are not inherently black problems the way that, say, being harassed by the police is, but they are also inseparable from his life as a black man.
The book is crammed with insight and self-awareness, a rare gem that’s able to describe in vivid language accessible to non-black, non-southern people a world that isn’t often easily seen by outsiders, even on the rare occasions when they are interested in looking. What an amazing feat of honesty and self-awareness. What unflinching descriptions of one’s own failings, demons, dark pits of life. I read his first novel (Long Division) years ago and wasn’t especially wowed by it–I think Laymon’s real best material is here, in his life. One can only conclude reading this that he is an unbelievably strong person.
Note: Laymon arrived at Vassar the same year I did. I never knew him, but I was an English major so knew lots of people who took his classes and he was beloved.