T. Geronimo Johnson’s first novel Hold It Til It Hurts is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It’s a visceral, somber tale of two brothers returning from military service in Afghanistan only to find more Afghanistans in their family secrets and the bombed-out ghettos of Atlanta and New Orleans. The prose is disciplined and precise, and by the time the climax swirled in the eye of Hurricane Katrina, there was no doubt in my mind that Hold It Til It Hurts is the definitive novel of the African-American male experience during the Bush years. I’ll be thinking about sentences like this one for a long time:
There were the morbidly inquisitive, people who thought they could comprehend, secondhand, if they could understand how often the dead appear to be grinning, or that if you stare too long a dead friend looks more and more like a stranger, while a dead stranger looks increasingly like a long-lost friend.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s follow-up Welcome to Braggsville is the shaggy, far less accomplished younger brother of his first book, a coming-of-age tragi-farce that never finds cohesion between the genres it tries to blend. Simultaneously undercooked and overstuffed, the purported Southern-fried comedy fails to clear its lowest hurdle: it’s just not funny enough.
Like Hold It Til It Hurts, Welcome to Braggsville is set primarily in the American South. A group of friends from different backgrounds meet in the undergraduate dorms at UC Berkeley and are referred to as The Little Indians. There’s D’aron, a sensitive white kid from the small town of Braggsville, Georgia. There’s Louis Chang, who wants to be a standup comedian. There’s Candice, a beautiful, liberal blonde so well-intentioned that she holds her own memorial to Ishi because she’s a fraction Native American. And Charles, the black student-athlete with a secret.
In an American History class, the Little Indians decide it would be a good idea to protest Braggsville’s annual Civil War re-enactment by flying to Georgia and staging a fake lynching. The class calls it “a performative intervention.”
I went to Berkeley, and I remember the place as being much less liberal than its legacy. Hundreds of Christian student groups roamed the campus. There were plenty of left-leaning organizations, of course, but by and large, blue-state and red-state students co-existed in peace. No one I knew (teacher or student) would have been surprised that Civil War re-enactments still happened. We all read our George Saunders. No one would ever consider it a smart idea to travel to slavery’s former home turf to get in the face of Southern whites about their culture. Protest from the safety of Sproul Hall? Absolutely. Give up spring break to risk imprisonment or worse? Unlikely. But that’s okay, because I just assumed Johnson, the director of the UC Berkeley Summer Creative Writing Program, was conjuring an exaggerated version of the university we both know for the purposes of raucous satire.
Some of Braggsville is quite raucous. When the faux-lynching goes horribly awry, the ambivalent reaction of the Braggsville residents echoes the way Americans reacted to the wrongful deaths in Ferguson and elsewhere last year. Johnson nails the balancing act between the absurd and the real in this very funny glimpse of D’aron’s college essays:
In regarding my major. There are over three hundred at Berkeley, and it’s hard to choose one when the most popular extracurricular activities here are 4-H, hunting, and Xbox…
I read on the YouTube advice link connected to the application page that we’re not supposed to end with a quote, especially from a book called “The Road Less Traveled.” Well, I guess I just did that anyway…
On another note, YouTube also said to be honest, so I must admit that the other reason I like UC Berkeley is because the only way I could get farther from Home is to learn how to swim.
I wished the reader could laugh more often at The Little Indians. But Johnson wants the reader to take their coming-of-age seriously. Everyone goes along with the protest because Candice is enthusiastic about it, and they all seem to desire her. Poor Candice – the only female of significance in the book – is repeatedly sexualized even in the most tragic of circumstances. See this passage after the disastrous performative intervention:
Looking at her feet D’aron winced. The ankles and insteps red clay encrusted. The left little toenail ripped off. Muddy blood caulked the cuticle and the nail bed was red as a blister. They… took… him! They… took… him!
They who? They who?
Candice was sitting upright now, no longer clutching her blouse. Her bra, also tiger-striped, poked through the hole where the breast pocket would be. Charlie reached over and gingerly adjusted her shirt, but there wasn’t enough fabric to cover everything.
She looked up at D’aron, and her eyes, always a little sleepy in a cute way, were inflamed, and her stare so fixed and piercing.
Candice is cute, even when it looks like she might have been raped and one of D’aron’s best friends is missing.
These tonal clangings bog down Welcome to Braggsville. After one of the Little Indians dies, the last two-thirds of the book is almost impossible to laugh with, despite the swipes at Southern culture, the appearance of Pynchonesque federal agents, and an absurd trial by tribunal in front of the local militia. Because while we should have been chewing on Johnson’s social commentary about America, the book is most concerned with D’aron’s grief.
Other times, the book tries to be funny, but isn’t. Louis Chang is a comic genius in D’aron’s eyes, but the lengthy standup routine that slays at D’aron’s family picnic is filled with broad cringe-inducers about Asians like “we eat everything but the oink or, sometimes in our case, the bark.”
Huge opportunities for dramatic conflict are missed. Only a few silent moments are given to the dead boy’s parents when they arrive in Braggsville to bring their son’s body home. For some reason, they don’t blame D’aron and his friends for what’s happened.
Welcome to Braggsville made me wish that the same themes had been tackled by an author with sharper satirical knives like a Paul Beatty or Christopher Buckley. I’d love to see this book again in another incarnation, when the little brother of Johnson’s brilliant first book grows up.