Love and violence and addiction and joy: The hard-fought truth of ‘Heavy’
There’s a scene in Kiese Laymon’s latest book, the genre-bending personal narrative “Heavy: An American Memoir,” in which adulthood, power and performance all converge in a game of pick-up basketball. Laymon’s memoir, written to his terrifying and talented mother (addressed always as “you”), crystallizes the history of a fierce relationship into their last game of driveway one-on-one. “When we first played, I was scared of how physical you were on the offense and defense,” Laymon recounts. “That day, though, I realized I could have beaten you a year earlier. And you realized I could have beaten you a year earlier. And neither of us felt happy about that fact.”
This is how “Heavy” operates. And oh my god, it is so good. It is so good that I had to cancel all my plans the evening I finished it to lay down and let it sit on my brain. It is so good that I am actively shrinking in intimidation before this review — how can one appropriately honor the scopeless effort of another’s reckoning? The courage it takes to turn the pen on oneself? And then publish what happens there?
“Heavy” is pure, generous affect in the written word. With tangible effort, Laymon revisits scenes like this loaded basketball game, difficult memories of tension, to unwind decades of myth spun around the fear that is owning a Black body in America. His pseudo-epistle works backwards in time and upwards in dedication to sift the truth out of memory’s first-overlooked details. Somewhere between blocking his mother’s shots into “the azaleas of the family next door” and her neck “glowing with sweat,” Laymon discovers that “Knowing, or accepting I could beat you was enough for me … we both knew, without saying it, you needed not to lose much more than I needed to win.” In this recollective manner, Laymon methodically excavates the dormant truth from the detail, daring to verbalize the things that were known without ever being said.
We are moved through these difficult environments with Laymon’s generous poetics. The tempo of the narrative is defined and maintained by a series of repeated terms and patterns — the periodic “you,” eerie in its sonorous frequency, and various manipulations of the word “beat” in all its parts of speech. In effect, Laymon writes you into a rhythm, one that masterfully carries you through the piece just a beat faster than the rate at which you realize what he’s actually talking about: the everyday violence of growing up Black in the Deep South.
Laymon depicts such violence above, below, through and between his rhythmic detail, as deeply ingrained and bleakly endured as it truly is. In one scene, Laymon slips a false plagiarism charge against himself and two of his Black peers between otherwise typical pieces of University life: dates to a Chinese buffet, bounced checks, “greasy pieces of Red Velvet cake” and “an Izod rugby shirt.” In effect, the form simultaneously carries and guises the daily violences against the Black body in all its forms and sizes. It is a mechanism as selective and duplicitous as memory itself — individual or national.
Laymon’s patterned details of violence galvanize his project. Their crafted accumulation seems to permit him the mettle to question their origin in the first place, an inquiry that leads him to the realization that the violences that define his everyday life, including addiction, perfectionism and abuse of all kinds, are adopted as mechanisms to deal with the fear externally instilled in the Black body. The physical effect of this fear on the body itself is documented by the dramatic evolution of Laymon’s own throughout the memoir, the waxing and waning of flesh in response to varying flavors of obsession and control. In response, Laymon and his mother and her mother and so on spin lie after lie to stitch up the unattractive effect of their unintentionally detrimental mechanisms — mechanisms for coping with an evil both unwelcome and unexpected in the first place. It is knotty, crude and ambiguous handiwork. Laymon finds a stray thread, and has summoned the courage to begin unraveling.
Somewhere amid the process of unraveling, Laymon realizes the string goes back to his mother, a political science professor singlehandedly raising a big Black boy in Jackson, Mississippi, and a woman intense in every sense of the word, on and off the driveway basketball court. Her love for Kiese overflows, spilling into anxiety for his body and future, a fear she copes with via inordinately high expectations (“Don’t excuse mediocrity. Don’t be good. Be perfect. Be fantastic.”) and discipline in the form of regular beatings. In the same breath, she lovingly nurtures Laymon in “a Black southern laboratory to work with words,” surrounded by books, encyclopedias and intellectual encouragement, teaching and enabling him to “assemble memory and imagination when (he) most wanted to die” — the very skills and habits that produced this book. Laymon’s struggle to discern his mother’s love and fear defines his upbringing, body and character. And, eventually, his memoir.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Laymon located the heart of his book in its dedication. In drafting the memoir, Laymon recalled “thinking about what I didn’t say, what I didn’t write, what I couldn’t write, and then I was just like, ‘Man, I’m scared to write this to the person I need to write it to. And that was my mama.’” So it goes. Despite his anxieties, Laymon eventually let his mother in on his project, and for the first time, they began talking about the things that were always known but never said, specifically violence and addiction. “She admits to certain things that I never thought she would,” Laymon told The Paris Review. “We’ve had conversations that we never thought we would have. But it’s not like it’s all good now. It’s better — it’s definitely better.”
Kiese Laymon’s commitment to reckoning, to laboring back in time through layers of heavy detail and lie, has extended the effect of his project beyond two hardcovers and the publishing industry. His insistence on the relationship between love and violence (“I think love exists to confront violence,” he told PR) makes some hard-fought room for conversation — for movement towards responsibility and truth. It certainly has for him and his mother, a formative relational experience that has, in its local intensity, informed Laymon’s understanding of progress on a multitude of scales. In his powerful conclusion, Laymon applies the personal project of “Heavy” to the weight of the urgent American moment, sharing that he “finally understand(s) there can be no liberation when our most intimate relationships are built on — and really inflected by — deception, abuse, misdirection, antiblackness, patriarchy, and bald-faced lies.” He doesn’t forget to give credit where it’s due: “Not teaching me this would have been the gravest kind of abuse.”