A sui generis, sometimes woolly exploration of the complexity and long reach of racism.

LONG DIVISION

A revised version of Laymon’s elliptical, time-folding work of metafiction about Southern racism.

The first novel by Laymon, initially published in 2013, is effectively two novels, both potent yet often funny character studies. In one, it’s 2013 and Citoyen, aka City, is a Mississippi high schooler vying to win a national title in the “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence” competition, a kind of spelling bee for syntax. City's onstage explosion (over the fraught, contentious word niggardly) goes viral, prompting him to escape to his grandmother’s home, where he pores over Long Division, a novel that purports to explain the recent, much-discussed disappearance of Baize, a local Black girl. City’s stint with his grandmother is marked by confrontations with racists and extreme payback against them as well as contemplations of racist language from the N-word on down. The novel’s second part is Long Division itself, in which City is a teenager in 1985 who, with the help of his friend Shalaya, finds a portal in the woods that sends them forward to 2013, where Baize is an aspiring rapper, and back to 1964, where he’s forced to confront the Ku Klux Klan. In style and structure, Laymon’s novel is an inheritor to Black postmodern literature of the 1960s and '70s—Toni Morrison most famously but also Leon Forrest, Gayl Jones, and William Melvin Kelley. And like many pomo works, the plotting gets convoluted as City attempts to untangle the various threads of his personal history. But the struggle is part of the point. Laymon wants to position his complicated hero as part of a throughline of violence against Blacks across decades, from microaggressions to lynching. City proclaims that the Long Division he’s reading is “about tomorrow and yesterday and the magic of love.” That’s also true, if obliquely, of the novel Laymon has written.

A sui generis, sometimes woolly exploration of the complexity and long reach of racism.

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982174-82-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2021

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Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

LUCY BY THE SEA

Lucy Barton flees pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine with ex-husband William.

This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic: her newfound closeness with William; his unfaithfulness when they were married; their two daughters’ marital and health issues; her growing friendship with Bob Burgess; the surprise reappearance of William’s half sister, Lois; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood, troubled relations with her parents, and ongoing difficulties with her sister, Vicky. To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment.

Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-44606-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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