Review: Kiese Laymon's Heavy is a true American memoir

Heavy lives up to its name.

With extraordinary craft and pain, Kiese Laymon’s stark memoir chronicles one man’s scarring journey into adulthood, sentence after sentence piercing in its emotional intensity through all 241 pages. Heavy covers grim territory, but reads too intimately to look away. This is a story about abuse, broken promises, wounds that never heal — about growing up a black man in America.

A novelist and essayist, Laymon (Long Division) writes what feels like a life’s work here, calling to mind the best of Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) and Roxane Gay (Hunger). He addresses Heavy to his brilliant but damaged mother, and begins by confessing in a shattering opening chapter: “I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie…. I wanted to write an American memoir.” In second-person prose, devastating as he all but begs her to realize how she hurt him, Laymon reveals their loving, toxic dynamic — how she demanded academic excellence and beat him each time she felt he didn’t give her enough. She’s since developed into a professor, and all through his childhood advocated for books and ideas and art — offering the essential weapon of knowledge.

Laymon rigorously questions the meaning of “success” as this narrative unfurls: the privileges afforded to (white) people who didn’t look like him, the anguish of his mother’s upbringing and how that informed his own. The author, we’ll learn, also encountered sexual abuse at a young age, and witnessed unspeakable acts of violence. The touch is less cruel than visceral, the repetition of “you” gradually looping in the reader — the many who benefit from a country where some people’s hopes and dreams reflect others’ pain and shame. Laymon’s personal story develops into a national indictment, one that cuts deep into the heart of American mythmaking.

Laymon meditates on the legacy of racial violence in his poor Mississippi hometown, the stains of blood and the ghosts of his ancestors all but visible as he traces the landscape. He conveys his agony, living through obesity and eating disorders, self-delusions and depression. (He weighed 800 pounds at one point, and would pass out in public.) The details are bleak, vivid: scrounging pizza slices from the trash while in college, watching his addict mother slotting away at a casino, from a distance. He’d eventually ascend to a professorship and, of course, the title of published author. But he carries the reality of his childhood, the broken, complicated memories of his mother, every day. He supports so many relatives financially that he, at times, can barely keep himself afloat. The shattering quality of the writing never lets up. As Laymon moves toward his conclusion, the book shifts into more of a monologue, an artful, even theatrical meditation on what preceded it — on his confession. The stylistic change functions like a confrontation, a distilled epilogue of clarity. It’ll leave you shaken.

“I wanted to write a lie. You wanted to read a lie. I wrote this to you instead because I am your child, and you are mine,” Laymon writes in Heavy. “You are also my mother and I am your son. Please do not be mad at me, Mama. I was just trying to put you where I’ve been. I am just trying to put you where I bend.”

Heavy is raw but controlled: a refined, warm, generously poetic literary work. Laymon elicits tears through crushing honesty, summons centuries of trauma through a survey of the present. What does it mean to tell an American story? This memoir argues, persuasively, that doing so reveals what we’re so rarely willing to see. That one person’s truth reflects all of ours. Just reading Heavy hurts. Imagine living it. A-

Heavy (Memoir)

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