This book just ate my weekend. It’s not the kind of book I would pick up on my own, or expect to like. I am not just saying that because it is filled with painful truths about how white people like me use our power to hurt black and brown people in America. I am also saying that because it is nonfiction, modern, American, and a memoir.
Lucky for me, a book club I recently joined is reading it this month. After failing to finish either of the past two months’ selections on time, I thought maybe I should get going on this one. I’ve been carrying it around with me for about a week and had gotten about 10 pages in. I had been warned that it contained discussion of sexual abuse, sexual violence, physical abuse, and racial violence. I was afraid to read it. But the first 10 pages were so well-written and compelling that I kind of wanted to anyway.
Yesterday morning I had some mental space and I sat down with it for a bit. Thinking I would push through 20 pages or so a day and in this manner finish the book by the end of the month. Push, my ass. Next thing I knew I had read 100 pages and desperately needed to pee. I forced myself to put it down, pee, and do what I was supposed to be doing with the day. Last night, supposedly sleeping, another 60 pages. And just now, supposedly working and getting ready for the week, the book is done and I again ignored needing desperately to pee for over an hour.
The book is gloriously well-written, and not in a generic way. Laymon plays with language, black language and white language, in lyrical sweeps that allow one to become deeply present in his story. The language is clear, never getting in the way of the meaning, but also so much more than just a vehicle for the story. I haven’t read something that I loved like this simply for the sake of its use of words, maybe ever.
More, it is honest to the bone. There is no holding back, no hiding, and no excuses, not for Laymon, not for any of his fellow travelers, and certainly not for me. Also, it is just nonlinear, elliptical, and confusing enough– it tugs you along trying to figure out what will or has happen(ed), without ever being lost enough to become distracted.
My brain has been stretched and opened in ways it never has before. Never in my life have I felt so close to actually understanding the challenges of growing up black and male and poor in Mississippi. Never have the reasons why my thoughts and behaviors about race in America are so inadequate been explained quite so well, demonstrated quite so thoroughly. As a cis, straight, white, wealthy American, I am so sheltered from so much of what he describes that I never hoped to feel like I got it. I know I still don’t really get it, because one of the things I got from the book is that I have no hope of ever really getting it, but at least I got a hint, an inkling, a flash. And a sense of the importance of working for more.
There’s more, much more, to the book than that–a different perspective on eating disorders, on sexual violence, on feminism, on teaching, and on higher education in America. I can’t possibly begin to do it justice, so let me just say that if you haven’t read it, do so now. Just be warned that you better have a free day or two in front of you, because you won’t get anything done until you finish it, once you start.