The debut novel from the critically acclaimed author of Heavy: An American Memoir is a picaresque coming-of-age story that will have you laughing and crying, sometimes in the span of a single sentence. Filled with indelible characters and beautifully written, this genre-bending novel is a provocative and unforgettable story of love and family and internet fame and time travel set in rural, post-Katrina Mississippi that Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones) calls “smart, funny, and sharp.”
Written in a voice that’s alternately humorous, lacerating, and wise, Long Division features two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, fourteen-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he’s sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.
Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division. He learns that one of the book’s main characters is also named City Coldson—but Long Division is set in 1985. This 1985-version of City, along with his friend and love interest, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called...Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these items with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet to protect his family from the Ku Klux Klan.
City’s two stories ultimately converge in the work shed behind his grandmother’s house, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance. Brilliantly “skewering the disingenuous masquerade of institutional racism” (Publishers Weekly), this dreamlike “smart, funny, and sharp” (Jesmyn Ward), novel shows the work that young Black Americans must do, while living under the shadow of a history “that they only gropingly understand and must try to fill in for themselves” (The Wall Street Journal).
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
1. One Sentence. LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him. Last quarter, instead of voting for me for ninth-grade CF (Class Favorite), he wrote on the back of his ballot, “All things considered, I shall withhold my CF vote rather than support Toni Whitaker, Jimmy Wallace, or The White Homeless Fat Homosexual.” He actually capitalized all five words when he wrote the sentence, too. You would expect more from the only boy at Fannie Lou Hamer Magnet School with blue-black patent-leather Adidas and an ellipsis tattoo on the inside of his wrist, wouldn’t you? The tattoo and the Adidas are the only reason he gets away with using sentences with “all things considered” and the word “shall” an average of fourteen times a day. LaVander Peeler hates me. Therefore (I know Principal Reeves said that we should never write the “n-word” if we are writing paragraphs that white folks might be reading, but...), I hate that goofy nigga, too.
My name is City. I’m not white, homeless, or homosexual, but if I’m going to be honest, I guess you should also know that LaVander Peeler smells so good that sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a small beast farted in your mouth when you’re too close to him. It’s not just me, either. I’ve watched Toni Whitaker, Octavia Whittington, and Jimmy Wallace sneak and sniff their own breath around LaVander Peeler, too.
If you actually watched the 2013 Can You Use That Word in a Sentence finals on good cable last night, or if you’ve seen the clip on YouTube, you already know I hate LaVander Peeler. The Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest was started in the spring of 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased. Each contestant has two minutes to use a given word in a “dynamic” sentence. The winner of the contest gets $75,000 toward college tuition if they decide to go to college. All three judges in the contest, who are also from the South, Midwest, or Southwest, must agree on a contestant’s “correct sentence usage, appropriateness, and dynamism” for you to advance. New Mexico and Oklahoma won the last four contests, but this year LaVander Peeler and I were supposed to bring the title to Mississippi.
At Hamer, even though I’m nowhere near the top of my class, I’m known as the best boy writer in the history of our school, and Principal Reeves says LaVander Peeler is the best boy reader in the last five years. Toni Whitaker hates when Principal Reeves gives us props because she’s a better writer than me and a better reader than LaVander Peeler, but she’s not even the best girl reader and writer at Hamer. Octavia Whittington, this girl who blinks one and a half times every minute, is even better than Toni at both, but Octavia Whittington has issues with her self-esteem and acne, and she doesn’t share her work with anyone until the last day of every quarter, so we don’t count her.
Anyway, LaVander Peeler has way too much space between his eyes and his fade doesn’t really fade right. Nothing really fades into anything, to tell you the truth. Whenever I feel dumb around him I call him “Lavender” or “Fade Don’t Fade.” Whenever I do anything at all, he calls me “White Homeless Fat Homosexual” or “Fat Homosexual” for short because he claims that my “house” is a rich white lady’s garage, that I’m fatter than Sean Kingston at his fattest, and that I like to watch boys piss without saying, “Kindly pause.”
LaVander Peeler invented saying “Kindly pause” in the bathroom last year at the end of eighth grade. If you were pissing and another dude just walked in the bathroom and you wondered who was walking in the bathroom, or if you walked in the bathroom and just looked a little bit toward a dude already at a urinal, you had to say “Kindly pause.” If I sound tight, it’s because I used to love going to the bathroom at Hamer. They just renovated the bathrooms for the first time in fifteen years and these rectangular tiles behind the urinal are now this deep dark blue that makes you know that falling down and floating up are the same thing, even if you have severe constipation.
Nowadays, you can never get lost in anything because you’re too busy trying to keep your neck straight. Plus, it’s annoying because dudes say “Kindly pause” as soon as they walk in the bathroom. And if one dude starts it, you have to keep saying it until you have both feet completely out of the bathroom.
But I don’t say “Kindly pause,” and it’s not because I think I’m slightly homosexual. I just don’t want to use some wack catchphrase created by LaVander Peeler, and folks don’t give me a hard time for it because I’ve got the best waves of anyone in the history of Hamer. I’m also the second-best rebounder in the school and a two-time reigning CW (Class Wittiest). Toni said I could win the SWDGF (Student Who Don’t Give a Fuck) every year if we voted on that, too, but no one created that yet. Anyway, it helps that everybody in the whole school hates LaVander Peeler at least a little bit, even our janitor and Principal Reeves.
When LaVander Peeler and I tied at the state Can You Use that Word in a Sentence contest, the cameras showed us walking off the stage in slow motion. I felt like Weezy F. Baby getting out of a limo, steady strolling into the backdoor of hell. In the backdrop of us walking were old images of folks in New Orleans, knee-deep in toxic water. Those pictures shifted to shots of Trayvon Martin in a loose football uniform, then oil off the coast drowning ignorant ducks. Then they finally replayed that footage of James Anderson being run over by those white boys off of Ellis Avenue. The last shots were black-and-whites of dusty-looking teenagers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee holding up picket signs that said “Freedom Schools Now” and “Black is not a vice. Nor is segregation a virtue.”
The next day at school, after lunch, LaVander Peeler, me, and half the ninth graders including Toni Whitaker, Jimmy Wallace, and strange Octavia Whittington walked out to the middle of the basketball court where the new Mexican seventh graders like to play soccer. There are eight Mexican students at Hamer and they all started school this semester. Principal Reeves tried to make them 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. LaVander Peeler says being racist is fun.
It kinda is.
Anyway, everyone formed a circle around LaVander Peeler and me, like they did every day after lunch, and LaVander Peeler tried to snatch my heart out of my chest with his sentences.
“All things considered, Fat Homosexual,” LaVander Peeler started. “This is just a sample of the ass-whupping you shall be getting tonight at the contest.”
He cleared his throat.
“African Americans are generally a lot more ignorant than white Americans, and if you’re an African-American boy and you beat not only African-American girls but white American boys and white American girls, who are, all things considered, less ignorant than you by nature—in something like making sentences, in a white American state like Mississippi—you are, all things considered, a special African-American boy destined for riches, unless you’re a homeless white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues, and City, you are indeed the white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues who I shall beat like a knock-kneed slave tonight at the nationals.” Then he got closer to me and whispered, “One sentence, Homosexual. I shall not be fucked with.”
LaVander Peeler backed up and looked at the crowd, some of whom were pumping their fists, covering their mouths, and laughing to themselves. Then he kissed the ellipsis tattoo on his wrist and pointed toward the sky. I took out my brush and got to brushing the waves on the back of my head.
It’s true that LaVander Peeler has mastered the comma, the dash, and the long “if-then” sentence. I’m not saying he’s better than me, though. We just have different sentence styles. I don’t think he understands what the sentences he be using really mean. He’s always praising white people in his sentences, but then he’ll turn around and call me “white” in the same sentence like it’s a diss. And I’m not trying to hate, but all his sentences could be shorter and more dynamic, too.
The whole school year, even before we went to the state finals, LaVander Peeler tried to intimidate me by using long sentences in the middle of the basketball court after lunch, but Grandma and Uncle Relle told me that winning any championship takes mental warfare and a gigantic sack. Uncle Relle was the type of uncle who, when he wasn’t sleeping at some woman’s house and eating up all the Pop-Tarts she bought for her kids, was in jail or sleeping in a red X-Men sleeping bag at my grandma’s house.
What Uncle Relle lacked in money, he made up for in the way he talked and taught the ratchet gospels. The sound of his voice made everything he said seem right. When he opened his mouth, it sounded like big old flat tires rolling over jagged gravel. And he had these red, webbed eyeballs that poked out a lot even when he was sleeping. I could tell you crazy stories about Uncle Relle’s eyeballs, his voice, and his sagging V-neck T-shirts, but that would be a waste of time, especially since the detail you just couldn’t forget about, other than his voice, was his right hand. The day after he got back from Afghanistan, Uncle Relle lost the tips of three fingers in a car accident with our cousin Pig Mo. Now, he had three nubs, a pinky, and a thumb. You would think that if you had three nubs, a pinky, and a thumb, you would keep your hand in your pocket, right? Uncle Relle always had his right hand out pointing at folk or asking for stuff he didn’t need or messing around with weed and prepaid cell phones. He told everyone outside the family that he lost the tips in Afghanistan.
Grandma said Uncle Relle lied about his nubs because he wanted everyone to know he was a damn survivor. In private, she said, “A real survivor ain’t got to show no one that they done survived.” Grandma was always saying stuff you would read in a book.
“Lavender Peeler,” I told him while brushing the sides of my head and looking at his creased khakis, “Oh, Lavender Peeler, my uncle and grandma thought you would say something white like that. Look, I don’t have to consider all things to know you ain’t special because you know ‘plagiarize’ is spelled with two ‘a’s,’ two ‘i’s’, and a ‘z,’ not an ‘s,’ especially since if you train them XXL cockroaches in your locker, the ones that be the cousins of the ones chilling in prison with your old thieving-ass brother, Kwame, they could spell ‘plagiarize’ with ummm”—I started to forget the lines of my mental warfare—“the crumbs of a Popeyes buttermilk biscuit, which are white buttery crumbs that stay falling out of your halitosis-having daddy’s mouth when he tells you every morning, ‘Lavender, that boy, City, with all those wonderful waves in his head, is everything me and your dead mama wished you and your incarcerated brother could be.’” I stepped closer to him, tugged on my sack, and looked at Octavia Whittington out of the corner of my eye. “That’s one sentence, too, nigga, with an embedded quotation up in there.”
“And your fade still don’t fade quite right.”
Without even looking at me, LaVander Peeler just said, “Roaches cannot spell, so that sentence doesn’t make any sense.”
Everyone around us was laughing and trying to give me some love. And I should have stopped there, but I kept going and kept brushing and looked directly at the crowd. “Shid. Lavender Peeler can be the first African American to win the title all he wants, y’all,” I told them. “But me, I’m striving for legendary, you feel me? Shid.”
Even the seventh-grade Mexicans were dying laughing at LaVander Peeler, who was closest to me. He was flipping through one of those pocket thesauruses, acting like he was in deep conversation with himself.
“Shid,” I said to the crowd. “I’m ’bout to be the first one of us with a head full of waves to win nationals in anything that ain’t related to sports or cheerleading, you feel me?”
Toni Whitaker, Octavia Whittington, and Jimmy Wallace stopped laughing and stared at each other. Then they looked at both of us. “He ain’t lying about that,” Toni said. Octavia Whittington just nodded her head up and down and kept smiling.
The bell rang.
As we walked back to class, LaVander Peeler tapped me on the shoulder and looked me directly in my eye. He flicked his nose with his thumb, opened his cheap flip phone, and started recording himself talking to me.
“I shall not stomp yo fat ass into the ground because I don’t want to be suspended today, but this right here will be on YouTube in the morning just in case your fat homosexual ass forgets,” LaVander Peeler told me. “I do feel you, City. I can’t help but feel you. I feel that all your sentences rely on magic. All things considered, I feel like there’s nothing real in your sentences because you aren’t real. But do you feel that a certain fat homosexual is supposed to be riding to nationals tonight in my ‘halitosis-having daddy’s’ van? I do. All things considered, I guess his mama don’t even care enough to come see him lose, does she?”
LaVander Peeler got even closer to me. I smelled fried tomatoes, buttered corn bread, and peppermint. I held my arms tight to my body and counted these twelve shiny black hairs looking like burnt curly fries curling their way out of his chin. I scratched my chin and kept my hand there as he tilted his fade-don’t-fade down and whispered in my ear, “You know the real difference between me and you, City?”
“Sweat and piss,” he told me. “I’m sweat. All things considered, sweat and piss ain’t the same thing at all. Even your mama knows that, and she might know enough to teach at a community college in Mississippi, but she ain’t even smart enough to keep a man, not even a homeless man who just got off probation for touching three little girls over in Pearl.”
LaVander Peeler closed his flip phone. “One sentence,” he said, and just walked off. “All things considered.”