Laymon Book Cover and Head Shot

Laymon, Kiese. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Evanston, IL: Agate Bolden, 2013. 144 pp. $15.00 ($9.99 epub).

[View title on Goodreads.com]

Reviewed by Daniel Peña

In his debut collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon opens with a series of letters to his Uncle Jimmy, the first of which recounts scenes from the last day of his uncle’s life.  Uncle Jimmy, seemingly rehabilitated after cleaning up his life and kicking a drug habit, brings his mother a pack of meat with the words, “This Mama’s Meat,” scrawled in “loopy black letters” over the bloodied wax butcher paper (p. 15).  Eight days later, the family makes its way to Mapp Funeral home where Laymon’s mother, Jimmy’s sister, is asking the funeral director to change her brother’s shirt.  Eulogizing Jimmy, Laymon’s Aunt Sue says he “wasn’t that different from anyone in this church [. . .]. No better or no worse.  And that’s what we have to accept . . . He was all of our brother” (p. 17).  It’s a sobering pivot toward Laymon’s own narrative,  a book-length meditation on black masculinity and the threads which make up the fabric from which Laymon is cut:  his own family but also, Jackson, Mississippi, ritualized violence, Hip-Hip, and above all, insecurity in the most cosmopolitan sense of the word.

In that first letter to Uncle Jimmy, Laymon juxtaposes memories of his own struggles with black masculinity with the memory of his Uncle’s death.  He finds that wherever he goes, no matter how far he runs—“from Mississippi, to Ohio, then Indiana and now New York”—if he looks down he can never distinguish his uncle’s footprints from his own (p. 16).  This is because those footprints are a part of him, but also because they’re everywhere.  That is to say that systematic injustice, black suffering, and self-destruction are woven into the very American fabric of not only Mississippi but also places such as Newark, Compton, and New York City, where the communal speak of Hip-Hop in the 80s and 90s gives voice to this particular kind of culture-specific struggle.

It’s from here that Laymon explains how Hip-Hop becomes a coping mechanism through which maintaining dignity, community, and sanity is possible. It’s through the guiding motifs of Hip-Hop and geography that Laymon weaves us through eleven essays that mirror the chronological arc of his personal growth, from childhood to adulthood, ultimately ending in an epilogue that brings the collection full circle by returning to epistemology as Laymon ends the book with a section of letters between Laymon and his mother and his Aunt Sue.

The title essay in this collection, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” is the necessary thread tying all stems together.  It recounts five incidents in which Laymon has found himself at the end of a gun barrel (once by an undercover cop, once by an armed robber, once by his own mother, and twice by his own hand).  While this essay is an astute stand-alone piece in its exploration of the sources and often violent outcomes of black anxieties (Laymon cites cases such as Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Edward Evans, and Hadiya Pendleton), constructing this essay around the central theme of guns also serves as an adaptable literary device that affords the rest of the collection more narrative malleability when interrogating American tropes of gun violence, particularly as it relates to how that violence affects black bodies.

This theme of American violence (both armed and unarmed) allows the rest of the collection to move with ease between the realms of academia, publishing, Hip-Hop, and politics because all of the ingredients used throughout this collection can be found distilled in the title essay.  You can see, for instance, shades of it manifesting in Laymon’s essay, “Hip-Hop stole my Southern Black Boy” when he ruminates on the concept of the “Cipher” which segues into his memories about rapping in his school’s bathroom, where he writes

All of us knew that hip-hop credibility had little to do with the quality of your boast, the intensity of your critique, or the passion of your confessional. Really, it was all rooted in your hip-hop aesthetic [. . .] and one’s worth in the B-Boy room was based almost solely on how hip-hop or New York the other six listeners thought you and your style were. (Pg. 63)

This passage at once echoes the tragic-comic anxieties of being born “a black boy on parole in Central Mississippi” that Laymon introduces in “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” while concurrently allowing the seeds for an essay about the New York publishing machine (“You are the Second Person”) to bloom with relative ease, returning to themes of regionalism, institutional violence, and insecurity as it relates to dignity (pg 43).

All of the essays in this collection speak to each other, even if only in subtle ways. And while at times this collection might seem diffuse in its narrative scope—essays like “Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012” and “Epilogue: My First Teachers—a Dialogue” seem superfluous to the collection upon first read—the writing is so strong that you can’t help but trust Laymon’s driving narrative voice will land you somewhere.  And it does—right in the thicket of Laymon’s brutal, if not humorously honest, take on himself and the American condition. The voice itself is an interesting component of the collection: colloquial, disarming, but also eviscerating and caustic in its gaze, which often focuses inward on Laymon himself.  But that’s not to say all of his introspective musings are negative.  Many of them are silly, funny, and sad, often at the same time.

It’s the blending of humor and tragedy in Laymon’s narrative voice that brings to mind what Dickens called “streaky bacon”—the funny/sad juxtoposition that he claimed he owed so much of his success to and that thing that’s become so integral to the irresistible voices of writers like Jennifer Clement, Frank McCourt, Sherman Alexie, and Tayari Jones.  Laymon is right up there with all of them—cut from that fabric, too.  And it’s the trifecta of his honesty, his scope, and his voice that makes this book a particularly poignant read.

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DANIEL PEÑA is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico City where he’s working on his first novel.  His work has appeared in The Rumpus, the Kenyon Review Online, Callaloo, and Huizache among other venues. He’s currently a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and the Ploughshares blog. He is originally from Austin, Texas.