“Heavy” is a gorgeous, gutting book that’s fueled by candor yet freighted with ambivalence. It’s full of devotion and betrayal, euphoria and anguish, tender embraces and rough abuse. Laymon addresses himself to his mother, a “you” who appears in these pages as a brilliant, overwhelmed woman starting her academic career while raising a son on her own. She gave her only child daily writing assignments — less, it seems, to encourage his sense of discovery and curiosity than to inculcate him with the “excellence, education and accountability” that were the “requirements” for keeping him safe...This generous, searching book explores all the forces that can stop even the most buoyant hopes from ever leaving the ground.
Food inspires some of the most precise, textured writing in Heavy. Laymon’s childhood is carefully evoked in his memories of his family kitchen with its “spoiled pimento cheese, the backs of molded wheat bread, a half-empty box of wine, and swollen green olives”. His self-consciousness about his body is on display when he describes, after a girl places her breast in his mouth, “the pork chop, rice, and gravy smell on my breath”. In general, he’s best when writing about his own feelings; explaining why he rarely contributed to classroom discussions: “There was too much at stake to ask questions, to be dumb, to be a curious student, in front of a room of white folk who assumed all black folk were intellectually less than them.”
Although he talks often about the craft of writing, Laymon’s prose can be erratic, lurching between showy “y’alls” and academese such as “modes of memory”. There are many sententious and underdeveloped proclamations: “I wondered for the first time how great an American sentence, paragraph, or book could be if it wasn’t, at least partially, written to and for black Americans in the Deep South.” Towards the end, when he includes his recipe for “building the nation”, he sounds merely pompous. His account of struggles to get tenure as a Vassar College professor belong to another book altogether.
The book...is a deeply unsettling read, exploring the blurred lines between love and abuse and the legacy of familial lies. Like Felipe, Laymon, now an English professor, is preoccupied with bodies, chiefly his own. While his mother gambles, his addiction is food and he swings from comfort-binging to starving himself. Like many black boys born in the years after the Civil Rights Movement, however, the true weight he bears is that of US history.