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Review: ‘Welcome to Braggsville’ by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to Braggsville

By T. Geronimo Johnson

Knopf

351 pages. $25.99

By Ed Taylor

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

In 2015, 150 years after the end of the Civil War and seven years after the election of a real African-American president with an Arabic name (“Barack” means “blessed”), a black man named Otis Byrd was found hanging from a Mississippi tree, echoing James Byrd Jr., the African American who was dragged to death tied to a truck in 1998. And, the Supreme Court this term will be ruling on a case involving the right to display the Confederate flag on a license plate, following closely on “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” and a woeful litany stretching back to 1619 and the arrival of the first Jamestown slave ship – and so, what year is it really?

And now 2015 brings the tragi-comic novel “Welcome to Braggsville” about ethnicity in America (as the novel reminds us, “race” is not a natural system and doesn’t follow natural laws “any more than it [follows] rational ones, and shouldn’t be compared to natural laws”), the American South, contemporary Civil War re-enactors, and a putative lynching.

What a world, as the Wicked Witch of the West put it.

T. Geronimo Johnson’s creatively voiced novel is one more reminder that America is laughably and cry-ably not a post-racial society and won’t be until, maybe, the sun finally goes supernova and mercifully solves our problems for us (along with solving the problems of all the inner planets – Mars will no longer have to worry about needing women, for example).

“Braggsville” is a hip, post-modern, coruscatingly intelligent exploration of the past and the present: here it’s the Old South versus Berkeley, Calif., in a death cage match, with the winner being – duh – no one.

Iowa MFA Johnson, whose previous novel was the PEN/Faulkner Award-nominated “Hold It Till It Hurts,” also earned a master’s in language, literacy and culture from UC-Berkeley, so he brings an insider’s perspective to the meta-world where politics, over-earnestness, and comedy come together in contemporary culture. “Braggsville” is as much about contemporary progressivism as it is the epic crossroads of race and history in America, and Johnson’s a keen and funny skewerer of things that deserve skewering in both areas.

But this is a book about the place where the humor ends in America – at the end of a rope.

As William Faulkner famously wrote in “Requiem for a Nun,” “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” And maddeningly, catastrophically, even tragically (in the formal, official, Greek sense) America is reminded of that on a nearly daily basis. In “Braggsville,” this idea is embodied in D’aron, the protagonist, a Georgia cracker who at the beginning of the book is a freshman at UC-Berkeley. D’aron’s arc might be summed up as Dixie boy meets big world, meets girl, and meets Dixie, knowing the place – and himself – for the first time.

“Welcome to Braggsville — The City that Love Built in the Heart of Georgia. Population 712” – encoded in this sign is everything that will unwind over the course of the novel, which takes D’aron from fish-out-of-water first-year Berkeley student to bruised and bemused transfer student at Loyola University in gothic New Orleans, where the story ends.

The novel’s divided into three sections, designated by phases of the moon, a “glossary,” and a “works cited list.” It uses a variety of post-modern but venerable narrative strategies, such as multiple points of view, parodic use of other genres such as the academic paper, and an intensely subjective voice mimicking the shorthand ways young friends talk, where associations of words and ideas, phrases, idioms, and references are in-jokes or not-jokes but implicitly understood by characters in a kind of reverse dramatic irony – they understand, while the reader needs to decode.

“D’aron the Daring, Derring, Derring do, stealing base, christened D’aron Little May Davenport, DD to Nana, initials smothered in Southern-fried kisses, dat Wigga D who like Jay-Z aw-ite, who’s down, Scots-Irish it is, D’aron because you’re brave says Dad, no, D’aron because your daddy’s daddy was David and then there was mines who was named Aaron, Doo-Doo after cousin Quint blew thirty-six months in vo-tech on a straight-arm bid and they cruised out to Little Gorge glugging Green Grenades and read three years’ worth of birthday cards”—and this soliloquy on name and naming and the implications of history that begins the novel goes on for another full page, in another one of its contemporarytactics shifting speakers at the end without conventional cues, ending “It’s all one word ma’am. No need to call me ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”

While some sections are contrastingly expository and simply declarative, this passage offers a feel for tone, humor, themes, and the literal weight of the past here.

D’aron goes away to Cali and encounters some kindred souls at a party – corn-fed blond Iowan Candace; Charlie, a black prep from Chicago; and San Franciscan Louis, whose parents are Malaysian. The four become close – calling themselves Little Indians – reinforcing their nascent political awakening, and driven by Candace’s outrage at the famous story of Ishi, “the last wild Indian,” they perform a guerilla tribute at a California amusement park that sets the stage for what follows.

On learning that D’aron’s town hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, the Indians decide they need to visit Braggsville and perform a more daring act highlighting the numerous weird and troubling things embodied in such a pageant.

However, their visit goes wrong, fast, changing the lives of each and of the town. The story ends with the friends in a more sober place, understanding both themselves and their country more clearly.

This is in some ways an odd book as the costuming slips off to reveal the machinery of authorial intent in places, and its tonal shift post-catastrophe is a stark and final one, from the sardonic but innocent idealism of the gang in its pre-lapsarian state to post-catastrophe anger, existential clarity, and rueful learning.

Nevertheless, the vision here is exemplary, and Johnson’s voice and the book’s messages are things we need to hear.

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo English professor and freelance critic.