By Katy Goodwin-Bates
The raw power of Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is evident just from the title; if there’s another book named in a more skewering and brutal style, I haven’t heard of it. In one of the book’s essays, Laymon makes his intentions clear: “This isn’t an essay or a woe-is-me narrative about how hard it is to be a black boy in America. This is a lame attempt at remembering the contours of slow death and life in America for one black teenager under Central Mississippi skies.”
In his introduction, Laymon explains his intended style for the book this way: “I wanted to produce a book with a Mississippi blues and gospel ethos. And I wanted to shape the book in the form of some of my favorite albums. I thought of the essays as tracks.” In this, Laymon is entirely successful. Like all the best albums, How to Slowly Kill Yourself has clear themes and a distinctive style that carries through each section, while simultaneously varying the message and delivery enough to make each “track” strong enough to stand alone.
It’s hard to explain why you should read this book without stealing all its best and most searing points. Laymon’s focus is firmly on his experiences as a black man in America, with both masculinity and race forming integral parts of his writing. The essay entitled The Worst of White Folks is particularly strong in describing the matriarchy in which Laymon grew up; explaining a “whupping” received as a result of laughing at a pretend fart during Mass, he elaborates by saying, “we figured it was our mothers’ way of keeping us out of the black gangs, black prisons, black clinics, black cemeteries. We knew it was their way of proving to our grandmothers that they were responsible.” Here, and throughout the book, Laymon is eloquent in depicting the grim realities facing black men, but his approach is contemplative rather than provocative. Where other works dealing with race repeatedly turn to “privilege” as a means to highlight inequality, often serving to alienate the very reader seeking to understand and respond, Laymon’s narrative is firmly undercut with accountability and pragmatism. As I interpret it, his writing turns the critical gaze inward rather than out, imploring his contemporaries, his relatives, and even President Obama to understand and change their own reality. How to Slowly Kill Yourself is not a book about blame or a call to arms; it’s a thoughtful meditation on what’s going wrong, why it’s been going wrong for so long, and how an individual can stop it from continuing to go wrong.
I’m not the smartest boy in the world by a long shot, but even in my funk I know that easy remedies like eating your way out of sad, or fucking your way out of sad, or lying your way out of sad, or slanging your way out of sad, or robbing your way out of sad, or gambling your way out of sad, or shooting your way out of sad, are just slower, more acceptable ways for desperate folks, and especially paroled black boys in our country, to kill ourselves and others close to us in America.
Laymon moves from the personal to the political to the much-publicized seamlessly, celebrating the careers of Bernie Mac and Michael Jackson, as well as intelligently assessing the cultural significance of Kanye West and rap music as a whole. The discussion of rap music’s misogyny and the apparent acceptance of this within society is interesting and demonstrates the thematic range on display throughout How to Slowly Kill Yourself. Laymon’s perspective of Obama, presented through an imagined interview with the President and previous candidate Mitt Romney, is both skewering and sympathetic, with the fictional Obama finally forced to concede, “I honestly don’t know how a left-leaning president makes things significantly better for black, brown and poor Americans. It’s so hard. I don’t know how to do it.” In analyzing such familiar figures, Laymon takes advantage of the reader’s prior knowledge and provides a brief but emphatic re-education of much of what we previously believed.
For a work of this nature to be effective, I think the writer’s voice has to be one which the reader wants to hear; we need to be willing to listen, so both the words and tone have to appeal even while arguing or educating. Crucially, Laymon comes across as a deeply interesting man–someone you’d want to sit down with over several coffees in order to ask his view on several hundred issues. This could have been an angry book, but it isn’t; it’s often lyrical, sometimes shocking, occasionally harsh, but overall extremely readable, and the kind of book that makes you nod in agreement as you read. Laymon’s prose is, at times, extraordinary, and always entirely effective.
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is available now at Greenville Public Library.