Kiese Laymon, whose author bio describes him as “a black southern writer,” has seriously pushed some boundaries in this debut novel. Long Division is a bold, unusual book, a fast-paced, multifaceted story that explores race, family, celebrity, religion, and self-discovery.
Written as a book within a book, Long Division centers around Citoyen “City” Coldson, a chubby, fast-talking, black teenager who suffers an onstage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest. That meltdown, as is par for the course these days, lands on YouTube, turning City into an overnight sensation—to just about everyone except his mother, who, in shame, sends City south to spend some time with his grandmother.
But before the meltdown, and before the trip south, City is given a copy of an unfinished book called Long Division, a book that is strikingly similar in characters and events to City’s own life. The book changes City’s life. Indeed, City himself changes the course of his own story and, in fact, of the future itself.
Long Division unfolds as a complex story within a story featuring time travel, a missing girl, a kidnapping, a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan, a baptism, and a bizarre revelation as City travels to and from 1964 to 1985 to 2013.
As if the story-within-a-story aspect weren’t enough, as if the time traveling weren’t enough, readers also must navigate a vernacular that at times feels like a foreign language. Long Division is peppered with contemporary slang to the nth degree.
At one point, City asks of an elder, “What do those sentences even mean?” He goes on to say, “I’m serious. That sentence doesn’t even make sense.”
Readers may well nod their heads (or roll their eyes) in agreement. Laymon’s voice is unique, a rarity in an era during which fiction tends all too often to chase trends: There are no werewolves, zombies, or wizards in these pages. Laymon has instead created a colorful, noisy, abrasive world of his own. But it is not a world for everyone: making sense of the slangy utterances of City and his brassy friends is by no means easy (especially for a white suburban Yankee girl).
At its heart, Long Division is a coming-of-age story. It is raw. It is in your face. It is crass and bold and adventurous. But that’s not to say Long Division isn’t rewarding. 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.
$15, trade paperback, 274 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen