Review: Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy”

by Miles Raymer


The best thing any story can do is bring people closer together. Sometimes people derive common cause from a story. Sometimes lovers find each other in the dark because the story turns the lights out. Sometimes enemies discover in the story one another’s mortal weakness. Sometimes the reader and author, separate in every way the universe conspires, eye each other across the story with cautious but charitable expressions.

For a white American––for there is no way to read this book without that aspect of my identity coming front and center––Kiese Laymon’s Heavy is a necessary slap in the face. I am outside of this, looking in at an America I do not recognize. I confront my place among the “white folk” I despise, a removed beneficiary of their brutal hegemony. I am dehumanized, but the wound is self-inflicted.

Heavy honors the English language with passion and exactitude, demonstrating an uncommonly strong allegiance to truth. It is a bridging of the unbridgeable, an unmasking of the forever hidden, a war drum’s call to solidarity across a scarred battlefield. Heavy is a fearless text, something to be read slowly and savored. It is a book I held at arm’s length until I realized it had embraced me from the opening sentence.

Heavy is about things. Things like poverty, abuse, deceit, shame and loneliness. Things like revision, family, endurance, love and truth-telling. Things like being fat and being skinny, and neither of those things being peaceful. All of these things are wrapped in the cloak of American blackness––a shelter made deep and wide by the suffering and abundance of black history. From the outside, it seems like an endless prison sentence with life’s greatest teacher as cell mate, a making-the-best of a never-should-have-been. It would be cruel if it did not seek a better way of life. It would be gentle if it did not reveal us for what we are. It would be just if it ignored our American reality.

Good books give us information and education. Great books give us clarity and wisdom. Books like Heavy give us a superpower––the ability to rehumanize the most distant Other through a journey so peculiar that it can’t help but become universal.

Rating: 10/10