Long Division by Kiese Laymon

51mAbD8758L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes I read something and when I’m finished I think, “I don’t know if I really got this.”  Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division is one of those books.  I know I would benefit from a reread, and from simply sitting with it longer than my appetite for reading allows.  Even after a book group meeting and discussion, I still don’t think I fully grasp this novel.  It’s a mind-bending book-within-a-book.  We go from 2013 to 1985 to 1964 and back again.  Characters show up and disappear, characters experience and witness violence, there is humor and sadness and time travel and I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take from all of this except that I was invested and surprisingly moved in the end.

The book starts out in 2013 with our hero, Jackson, Mississippi high-schooler City (Citoyen) Coldson, getting ready to compete with a few classmates and others in the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence Contest, which was “started in 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased.”  It’s nearly impossible to set up this novel, so here’s the Goodreads description:

 The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 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, he’s 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 book’s 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.

It’s not a long book, despite all the plot elements. There’s different typeface for what’s happening in the present day and what’s happening in the book City’s reading, which helps a bit to keep everything straight.  It tackles serious subjects like race, class, and sexuality, with a sideways dark humor.  It felt alternately playful and serious.  Parts of it, especially at the beginning, reminded me of another book that made me feel dull-witted:  Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.  (Not as outrageous, though.)  I was not prepared for how absorbing this book is – it’s more like a speculative mystery than straight literary fiction. What happened to Baize?  What is City’s grandmother hiding in her shed?  Does everyone make it back to the present day?  I was also not prepared for how emotional I would get reading it.  I know.  I cried, how shocking!  😀 But for most of the book I was kept at a distance by the book-within-a-book format and the dizzying prose, and then – BAM!  The last 30 pages hit me hard.

Make no mistake, this book is using fantasy and humor and meta fiction to talk about race in the Deep South.  A white man in conflict with City’s grandmother says a mouth full with one sentence.

“Y’all mad at something more than me,” he said.  “I ain’t do it.”

There’s a powerful moment where City is in his grandmother’s church, and he’s wondering what the parishioners would think if they knew what his grandmother was doing.  He says,

If they ever found out, maybe two of them would talk smack about my grandma, but I figured that everyone in the church had been treated like a visitor on their own road, in their own town, in their own state, in their own country.  It wasn’t really complicated at all, but I’d never understood it until right then in that church.  When you and everyone like you and everyone who really likes you is treated like a pitiful nigger, or like a disposable nigger, or or like some terrorizing nigger, over and over again, in your own home, in your own state, in your own country, and the folks who treat you like a nigger are pretty much left alone, of course you start having fantasies about doing whatever you can – not just to get back at white folks, and not just to stop the pain, but to do something that I didn’t understand yet, something a million times worse than acting a fool in front of millions at a contest.

As I write this, I’ve decided that I must read this book again.  And I’ve got to slow down next time.

 

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

My standards for a mystery novel are a bit lower than my standards for other kinds of fiction, but I have three main requirements:

  1. It holds my interest.
  2. Children don’t suffer in it (or at least I don’t have to read about them suffering.  If they’ve already suffered before I come in I may be able to handle it.)
  3. It doesn’t have a pun in the title.  (Those are not my thing, sorry.)

James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain fulfilled all of my requirements.  I’d been wanting to read some new mystery authors lately, since I’m totally caught up on Michel Connelly and have read so much Ruth Rendell.  Many of our library patrons read mysteries, so it’s nice to be able to recommend things and have conversations with them.  I’d heard good things about Burke, and the setting (New Orleans and Southern Louisiana) appeals to me.

51t2zgy1ezl-_sx306_bo1204203200_At first I wasn’t sure I was connecting with the main character, New Orleans police detective Dave Robicheaux.  In fact, it took me until page 200 or so to decide if I liked both the character AND the book.  Usually I’d have abandoned something that I was so ambivalent about, but the week I was reading this was a particularly bad one for me, and my attention span was shot.  I couldn’t have read (or probably enjoyed) anything more literary or complicated.  Reading it felt like watching a police procedural show on television, and that suited my mood just fine.

Some words I’d use to describe this book:  atmospheric, vivid, violent, gritty, occasionally implausible, occasionally poetic.  Burke is a beautiful writer, especially when he’s describing the city or the bayou or Robicheaux’s emotions.  Consider this example, from which the book’s title is explained:

…the truth was that I wanted to drink.  And I don’t mean I wanted to ease back into it, either, with casual Manhattans sipped at a mahogany and brass-rail bar with red leather booths and rows of gleaming glasses stacked in front of a long wall mirror.  I wanted busthead boilermakers of Jack Daniel’s and draft beer, vodka on the rocks, Beam straight up with water on the side, raw tequila that left you breathless and boiling in your own juices.  And I wanted it all in a run-down Decatur or Magazine Street saloon where I didn’t have to hold myself accountable for anything and where my gargoyle image in the mirror would simply be another drunken curiosity like the neon-lit rain striking against the window.

We learn early on that Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, and a Vietnam veteran, and these two things define and haunt him throughout the book.  He’s also a detective in the style of Connelly’s Harry Bosch – someone with a passion to help the wronged, even if it means ruffling the feathers of potentially corrupt fellow law enforcement officers.  The plot sets off with Robicheaux digging into the mysterious death of a poor, young, black prostitute in Cataouatche Parish outside of New Orleans.  Dave discovered her body in the lake while fishing.  The local officials don’t want to do an autopsy and are acting suspicious when he makes inquiries.  This sets off a long chain of events that is kind of confusing, honestly, but involves drug lords, arm smugglers, and local mafia guys.  Lots of graphic violence ensues.

Robicheaux makes some implausible escapes from death, which stretched credibility a bit, but I rolled with it like I’d go with a plot line from “Magnum P.I.” or another detective show.  The one thing that annoyed me the most about the novel was the romantic subplot. Annie, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed social worker who meets Dave when he’s in the middle of a sticky roadside situation with some crooked cops, stretched my belief even more.  On their first date, he nearly gets her tortured and killed by some very bad men who are hunting him.  I’m sorry, but I’d get as far away from a man with Dave’s proclivity for danger as soon as I could.  But this was a relatively minor detraction from a pretty good, otherwise well-written mystery.

I gave it three stars, and I like it enough to want to read the next one in the series to see if it improves.  When I give a novel a three-star rating, it means I liked it.  Didn’t love it, didn’t dislike it.  Mysteries are my literary palate-cleansers, my comfort reading even if they’re dark and a bit disturbing.  They don’t have to have soaring prose or powerful ideas.  They just have to feel mostly authentic to me, and they have to take my mind off whatever might be going on.  This one succeeded on both counts.