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Long Divisionby Kiese Laymon
Synopses & Reviews
Kiese Laymon's debut novel is a Twain-esque exploration of celebrity, authorship, violence, religion, and coming of age in Post-Katrina Mississippi, written in a voice that's alternately funny, lacerating, and wise. The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, its 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, 14-year-old Citoyen City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, hes sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.
Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division.” He learns that one of the books main characters is also named City Coldson — but Long Division” is set in 1985. This 1985 City, along with his friend and love-object, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called... Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet protect his family from the Klan.
City's two stories ultimately converge in the mysterious work shed behind his grandmother's, where he discovers the key to Baize's disappearance.
"Two not-quite-parallel threads run through Laymon's meandering debut novel: the first, the story of young Mississippi high-schooler Citoyen, a.k.a. 'City'; the second, chapters from a book he finds about a young Mississippi high-schooler of the same name, who, it seems, is him in a different time period. City is something of a typical inner-city teenage protagonist — sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, yet sensitive and observant — so his uncharacteristic outburst and the ensuing repercussions that give the novel its initial momentum seem implausible. The novel takes a fantastical turn, and occasionally Laymon's workings stand out a little too clearly. This selective adherence to the 'rules' of writing happens on a larger scale: the novel within a novel goes unexplained — and unquestioned by City — for so long it's as though the author is ignoring his own subject matter to keep pages turning. Those trusting Laymon to provide answers will find a curious, enjoyable novel. However, readers who believe authors must address a text's pressing concerns as they make demands upon the reader — not when the author decides he wants to — will find this novel more trying. Though its real-world sections take relish in skewering the disingenuous masquerade of institutional racism, the book's interest in fantasy elements serves as an easier, less interesting, way out. (June)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Funny, astute and searching....The author's satirical instincts are excellent. He is also intimately attuned to the confusion of young black Americans who live under the shadow of a history that they only gropingly understand and must try to fill in for themselves." Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
"Don't miss Kiese Laymon's Long Division. One Mississippi town with two engaging stories in two very different decades. The sharp humor and deep humanity make this debut novel unforgettable." Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC
"A novel within a novel — hilarious, moving and occasionally dizzying....Laymon cleverly interweaves his narrative threads and connects characters in surprising and seemingly impossible ways. Laymon moves us dazzlingly (and sometimes bewilderingly) from 1964 to 1985 to 2013 and incorporates themes of prejudice, confusion and love rooted in an emphatically post-Katrina world." Kirkus Reviews
"Laymon's debut novel is an ambitious mix of contemporary southern gothic with Murakamiesque magical realism...the book elegantly showcases Laymon's command of voice and storytelling skill in a tale that is at once dreamlike and concrete, personal and political." Booklist
"Laymon's voice is unique, a rarity in an era during which fiction tends all too often to chase trends....At times touching, at times poignant, Laymon more than once strikes a beautiful chord in the midst of what often feels gritty and intentionally provocative. Those touching insights make Long Division worth the effort, and readers who stick with the story (stories, actually) will find themselves thinking about City and the people in his life long after they close the book." Chicago Book Review
"Smart and funny and sharp...I loved it." Jesmyn Ward, author of Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, winner of 2011 National Book Award for Fiction
"[One of] our best books of the year so far...Layman's debut novel is bursting with colloquial language from three generations of Mississippi African Americans, mixed with gut-piercing truths about a long racial divide that persists to this day." School Library Journal
"A little fantasy, a little mystery and a lot hilarious." Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Long Division includes two distinct but tightly interwoven stories — one called "All Things Considered," the other "Long Division." In the first, it's March 2012: 14-year-old Citoyen "City" Coldson and his nemesis, LaVander Peeler, become the first black male duo to win the state of Mississippi's Can You Use This Word in a Sentence” contest finals. Both boys are asked to represent Mississippi at the televised national competition. (Hours before the contest begins, City is given a book without an author called "Long Division.") Turmoil and misunderstanding ensue, as City and LaVander learn they have reason to doubt the merit of their presence at the contest. They want us to win,” City says to LaVander moments before the contest starts. After being assigned, and then misusing, the word niggardly” in the first round of the contest, City has a remarkable on-stage meltdown in front of a national television audience. LaVander, on the other hand, though incredibly shaken, advances to the finals and has the chance to win the contest.
The day after the contest, City is sent to spend the weekend with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, which is also the site of the mysterious disappearance of girl named Baize Shephard. Baize Shephard also happens to be one of the main characters in the book "Long Division," which City has been dipping into throughout the story. While in Melahatchie, City's troubled Uncle Relle reveals that City has become an overnight YouTube celebrity thanks to his on-stage meltdown, and that he is being sought to appear on a new television show called "Youtube's Black Reality All Stars." City is alternately celebrated and ridiculed by the white and black residents of Melahatchie as a result of his performance at the contest, even as he delves deeper into "Long Division" and its story of the missing Baize Shephard.
When the neighborhood is convinced that a white man nicknamed Pot-Belly has assaulted Baize and done away with her body, they beat the man to death... or so City thinks, until he finds the man alive, chained up in a workshed in the back yard of his grandmothers house. City visits the imprisoned white man four times during the course of his weekend — reading to him from "Long Division," asking him questions he's always wanted to ask white people, and promising to save him if he survives his own baptism, which his grandmother has engineered during City's visit. When LaVander appears, he and City must reluctantly work together again, this time to save the life of the white man chained in the workshed — and quite possibly the life of City's grandmother, too.
There's something else that City finds especially interesting about "Long Division," besides the story of Baize: another main character in the book is also named City Coldson — except this City Coldson, who lives in Melahatchie, is 14 in 1985. This City will do anything to make Shalaya Crump love him — including traveling 26 years into the future (via a time portal they find in the woods) to steal a laptop and cellphone from a girl — a mysterious teenaged rapper named Baize Shephard, who lost her parents in Hurricane Katrina.
The following day, Shalaya and City meet another worn down time-traveler, this one from 1964, a boy named "Jewish" Evan Altshuler. Evan is desperate to protect his family against the Klu Klux Klan during Freedom Summer. He convinces Shalaya that he can help her find her parents and her future self if she brings the laptop computer back to 1964 and does him a favor.
Unexpectedly, City and Shalaya become separated, with Shalaya stuck in 1964 and City stuck in 2012. In their wanderings back and forward through time, much is revealed about Citys relationship with Baize, and about segregation, Freedom Summer, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Oil spill, and the limits of technology and love. Long Division is a Twain-esque exploration of celebrity, authorship, racialized terror, neo-liberalism, religion, and coming of age in Post-Katrina Mississippi.
About the Author
Kiese Laymon is a black southern writer, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1998 and earned an MFA from Indiana University in 2003. Laymon is a contributing editor at Gawker.com and has written for numerous publications including Esquire, NPR.org, and ESPN.com. He is an associate professor at Vassar College.
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