"Kiese Laymon’s ‘Long Division’ Disappears Inside The Heads Of His Teenaged Characters"
It’s a fitting reaction both for City and for anyone reading Long Division, which in addition to being a story about time travel, junior high vocabulary competitions, and the complexities of race in America, is about the literature that’s available to young people, and the extent to which it does or doesn’t speak to their experience. If Laymon’s novel runs into some plotting problems over the course of its run, it succeeds in doing something more emotionally moving, producing a series of crystalline moments when City comes to a clearer understanding of the world he lives in–and the kind of man he wants to be in it.
Part of what draws City to Long Division in the first place is how little other literature seems to speak to his own experience. “I was too old for the kids’ books and to tell you the truth, all the Bible stuff I’d heard didn’t seem interesting for too long,” he explains of the library in his grandmother’s hometown of Melahatchie, Mississippi, where he’s sent to stay by his mother after intentionally flubbing a televised vocabulary competition that he came to believe was rigged to produce a non-white winner. “For less than two pages, you’d get something interesting about naked Adam and Eve eating on apple cores and grabbing snakes by the throat, and then three hundred pages later, you’d get some boring stuff about jokers named Isaac and Ham. But the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spencer. I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell that whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler, my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met.”
And part of the reason City needs literature to help him work through his feelings is that the world around him is becoming more perceptibly complicated. In his school back at home,
“Principal Reeves tried to make [an influx of Mexican students] feel accepted by having a taco/ burrito lunch option three times a week and a Mexican Awareness Week twice each quarter. After the second quarter, it made most of us respect their Mexican struggle but it didn’t do much for helping us really distinguish names from faces. We still call all five of the boys ‘Sergio’ at least twice a quarter.”
It’s not just everyday school that’s hard. City and his best enemy, LaVander Peeler, are both finalists in a vocabulary competition, which LaVander sees as an opportunity to first prove his worth, and go on to greater glories, telling City “Then I’ma beat them in whatever else they put in my way. Everything. All things considered, I will never lose to these people. Ever. They need to know that. When I’m married to Malia Obama and living in the biggest house in their neighborhood, they need to know they will never beat me.” But when they arrive at the competition, the boys are decked out in urbanwear, and it becomes clear that the organizers of the contest want LaVander or City, or one of two Mexican-American contestants, to win to prove that they aren’t racists. It’s a revelation that lays both of them low. “Considering all things prepared him to win the regional contests, but it didn’t prepare him for what it would feel like to not be given a chance to really lose,” City reflects. “I didn’t get it until that second. It wasn’t at all that we were there just for decoration, like LaVander Peeler Sr. said. LaVander Peeler and I, or LaVander Peeler or I, were there to win the contest. They’d already decided before the contest even began that one of us needed to win. The only way they could feel good about themselves was if they let us win against the Mexican kids, because they didn’t believe any of us could really compete.
But in the world of the version of Long Division that City is reading, the time-traveling version of himself who lives in 1985, the neighbor girl named Shayla Crump that the fictional City is in love with, and Evan, the Jewish boy from the 1960s who they meet in their adventures, have the exact kinds of conversations about identity that City himself is considering, and that he’s not finding in a Mississippi library. Evan complains that Shayla is “Trying to tell me that I’m white when I know I’m Jewish, ain’t you?” Shayla struggles to understand the Holocaust, because, as she demands of Evan “Why would white people slaughter other white people for no reason if there was colored folks around for them to slaughter?… I’m saying that if there was black people and Indian people and Chinese people and Mexican people around to slaughter, why would white people pick other white people?” And Evan explains to fictional City and Shayla that being able to hide his Jewishness and assume whitness isn’t a cure-all for his problems, either. “We been trying to hide long as I remember,” he explains. “And hiding, it’s damn near worse than the getting caught. Because you only hiding from yourself. How you supposed to like yourself or anyone else if you done convinced yourself that you deserve to be hunted by yourself?”
Race isn’t the only item on fictional City’s agenda, either. He’s confounded by Shayla Crump, a girl who “could laugh all late into the phone and not care about using up her grandma’s long distance to talk about hating Ronald Reagan. It was stuff like calling me long distance and telling me stuff that didn’t make sense and laughing all late at my jokes that made me think I could tongue kiss Shalaya Crump.” But recognizing that he might want to smooch Shayla doesn’t mean the City in City’s version of Long Division knows how to act around her, or can recognize that his normal self might be what drew Shayla to him in the first place. “What happened to you?” Shayla demands of him. “One day you were just regular and we were playing Atari and hitting each other in the face with pine cones. Then, just like that, you get to stealing Bibles to impress me and wearing clean clothes and talking about love and getting jealous of Willis whenever we watch Diff’rent Strokes and asking me all these questions about what senior I have a crush on. Can’t you just be yourself?”
In 2013, City’s also coming to learn that friendship can exist with the intensity of love. Even though he and LaVander have been long-time enemies, after their collective debacle at the vocabulary competition, City comes to realize that “I didn’t think my body wanted to kiss or even grind up on LaVander Peeler. But I also knew that no one on earth could make me happier or sadder than that boy either. That felt like love to me.”
And both iterations of the boy are shaking out their relationships to women in a broader sense. Fictional City meditates that “I didn’t know what it took to be a good president or governor, but I knew Shalaya Crump had it. I knew it from the first day I met her. In her own way, she was as compassionate and thoughtful as a girl could be, but her mind was stronger than yours and no one could ever really break her heart. You could sprain her heart, and her heart would bruise a lot, but it could never ever be broken. Never. I figured that there were probably 27 people like that in the world at one time and they were the only people who should be running for president of anything that mattered.” And 2013 City’s revelations in the library aren’t limited to a frustration with the reading material available to him. He sneaks looks at a pornographic magazine and tells us “It was the first time I’d seen just breasts cut off from a woman’s face and even though the breasts were nice, it was wack to just see breasts and no face. But that was the first time I realized that seeing breasts of any kind was like eating pancakes. Even the nastiest pancake in the world was always better than the best stack of toast you could imagine. Still, I hoped the woman who owned the breasts wanted her head cut off from the picture. If not, it was one of the meanest things I could imagine doing to someone.” Teenagers may be capable of beastliness, but both of these boys are shaking out a respect for women and female strength on their own.
I focus on these moments rather than the plot itself, because the complex machinations don’t always serve these moments of revelation, though the big plot reveal towards the end of the novel is a humdinger that drives all the characters thrillingly close to maturity, and the joy and pain that come with it. But Long Division would be worth reading even if it was nothing more than a meditation on a hot summer and the aftermath of a sobering humiliation. Laymon does a remarkable job of capturing the moments when you grow up all at once–and cleverly poses a strong case for making sure all teenagers will have the books that help them reach those revelations.