I came across a used copy of T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, and just finished reading it this morning. Johnson’s first novel, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts (2012), was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Welcome to Braggsville, his second, was longlisted for the National Book Award. At this pace, he should be winning the Pulitzer sometime in the next four to five years; he’s certainly got the skills to do it.
Now, first off, there are some pretty startling plot moves in Braggsville, so I’ll be writing a bit cryptically here to avoid depriving the reader of experiencing the story and its twisty developments in the manner (or something close to the manner) that Johnson meant for it to be experienced.
Our protagonist is D’aron Little May Davenport (aka a whole bunch of other names, but most commonly Daron), born and raised in Braggsville, Georgia. Braggsville, or B-Ville, is a small town—very small, with a population of 792—that was founded by Raymond Bragg as “the city that love built in the heart of Georgia” (113).
Daron’s family are white folks, modern but rednecky. They’re not overtly racist, and Daron’s parents raised him as such, but they keep a pair of Charlies—problematic mini-statues of exaggerated black figures with “watermelon red lips” that everyone in town keeps in their front yards—flanking their driveway, and Confederate flags abound. Additionally, the local general store sells a bunch of bumper stickers with slogans such as “Guns Don’t Kill People, Dangerous Minorities Do” and “If I’d Known It Would Be Like This, I’d Have Picked My Own Cotton” and, re Obama, “I Don’t Like His White Half Either.” There’s a valley, or a “holler,” on the other side of which lives the town’s black community, and which white folks from Daron’s side of town rarely visit.
What’s perhaps most universal about B-Ville, though, is that, as a small town in USA, any kid who grows up with a modicum of ambition can’t wait to get the hell out, and Daron’s no different. He’s smart, and applies to universities all over the country, and ends up moving to the liberal bastion of Berkeley, California (or Berzerkley, as he often refers to it), where his much-sheltered small-town mind is suddenly quite boggled by all he sees there, and where he becomes part of a small cabal of four friends (the “4 little Indians”), consisting of (1) Daron himself, (2) Iowa-raised white girl Candice (who cut her hair short and, when her parents objected, grew it long but dreaded it), (3) African-American Charlie (the closeted burly gay man who ironically gets all the girls’ attention), and (4) Louis Chang, aka Loose Chang (Malaysian but often called Chinese, up-and-coming comedian, the self-proclaimed “next Lenny Bruce Lee,” creator of the pretty hilarious hashtag “#ZombieDickSlap,” and, to be sure, one of the more charming and memorable characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction).
When Daron’s friends discover that, back in Braggsville, the townspeople annually perform a Civil War reenactment, the group of them concoct a very problematic but bold scheme to put on a performance protest of sorts, where they will crash the reenactment and, using costumes and a rigged and hidden harness, stage a fake lynching on a branch of a nearby tree, and document the reactions of Braggsville citizens, who that day will all be Civil War soldiers. The underlying, driving concept here is that reenactments are quite problematic, fundamentally dishonest at best (white-washing our history in a perhaps otherwise innocuous celebration of “Southern pride”), and nastily racist at best (celebrating a historical period in which white Southerners stood up for their “right” to enslave black people and lamenting this period’s passing). Johnson succinctly and aptly summarizes the position of Daron and his friends: “If we say the Civil War was not about slavery, next we will say that slavery was not about race” (337).
What occurs next in the novel, as you can imagine, goes not according to plan, and the key lesson learned here by the players in this drama—“Nothing was as it seemed,” which in one way was the very premise of their protest—gets reinforced in harsh and unforgettable ways (236).
I’ll refrain from saying more about the plot here, because I genuinely recommend that you read this novel.
Now, in addition to this pretty brilliant, quite postmodern premise and dramatic events wrought of it, Johnson’s writing style is also something to behold. He’s quick of wit and sharp of tongue. Here are a few choice examples. At one point, Louis is paid a compliment, and Johnson writes, “Louis beamed like he’d found a buttered Olsen twin in his bed” (80). A minor character named Quint at one point is telling a story about a baptism and refers to what happened as “waterboarding the baby” (268).
Also, Johnson, breaking with all convention, violates a standard no-no for writers and shifts perspective back and forth throughout the novel. Most of it is written in non-omniscient third person, telling us what happens to Daron and Candice and Louis and Charlie and referring to them as such. But there are occasional sections of the book with a narrator who refers to Daron as “you,” and it has the wonderful effect, when Johnson wants it to, of pulling the reader fiercely and sharply right into Daron’s shoes, so to speak. It’s a smart move, and works well. Johnson himself spoke to this technique during a talk he gave at the 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival. “I’m trying to get the readers’ experience as close as possible to his experience,” he said. “Things are revealed to the readers in the same way they are revealed to him.”
And the dialogue, two points about it: It’s non-traditionally rendered, no quotation marks to guide the reader, but nevertheless eminently readable and smooth-flowing. Additionally, the dialogue is raw and authentic. Here’s an example (and there are many others I could give). At one point, Daron’s father is reading over some of the syllabi from Daron’s classes at Berkeley:
Are you going to feel honored when I knock you into next week? I will. His father cracked his knuckles as he picked up another syllabus. Listen to this one. He snapped the paper in the air. Don’t believe everything you think. His father pondered that a moment. Ain’t that the truth. That professor’s a real genius. I don’t need to go to college for this stuff. I woulda told you this, son: People generally aren’t too fond of people who are different. No one can warm to everybody. That ain’t never gonna change. Only thing’ll change is what counts as different, from time to time. So, try to take ‘em as individuals. Know you can’t fix the world. Get rid of niggers, you got coloreds. Get rid of coloreds, you got blacks. Get rid of blacks, you got African-Americans. It’s all the same if you don’t like ‘em. See, ‘cause if you don’t like ‘em, you’ll make some new shit that’s too clever for them to know all fuck what’s happening. Like Ed down in purchasing, he calls ‘em Mondays. You think that changes what’s in the man’s heart? You think a different word confuses his emotions? No. Why Mondays? Why? Why? Nobody likes Mondays. Do I agree with Ed? No. He’s funny, a real cut, but I don’t agree with him. I woulda guessed you didn’t either and that I didn’t have to pay for my son D’aron Little May Davenport to take a class to tell him to act right and treat people goddamned fairly. It’s a damned insult to your mother and me. It would be like if we went out and rented ourselves a kid to come live here on the holidays. Analyze stable and dynamic inequities? Analyze heterogenous interactions? Analyze class markers in language? Professor, there is another word in analyze that oughta put you on the scent of how this smells to me (239-240).
I’ll leave it at that. It’s a wonderful and important book, and Johnson has done our country, and our culture, a great service by writing it.