Book Review - Braggsville' puts T. Geronimo Johnson in good company

Author's semi-autobiographical novel is modernism circa 2015

Monday March 9, 2015 04:00 am EDT

It's unlikely that Welcome to Braggsville is sitting on Rush Limbaugh's nightstand. That being said, it probably should be.

The latest of T. Geronimo Johnson's efforts, Braggsville is a completely unsettling, witty cultural criticism — and its release in the middle of Black History Month was no accident.

The novel, which follows Southern-bred D'aron Davenport as he goes from Braggsville, Ga., to Berkeley, Calif., and back again, focuses on the issue of race relations with fine-tuned satire and clarity. D'aron, whose valedictorian status is the cherry on top of a long career as an outlier among peers who "don't understand," him is anxious to free himself of his small-town upbringing. D'aron's equally unsettled at the University of California, Berkeley, until he finds three eccentric comrades at a party gone wrong. Together, the "4 Little Indians" put their liberal education to use by actualizing a bit of political theater at the Civil War reenactment in D'aron's hometown.

As readers may guess, the fresh-faced enthusiasm of the young protestors is met with adversity, and a shocking, well-executed twist. Despite these left-turn-no-blinker kinds of moments, Johnson manages to maintain the readers' trust by avoiding a dependency on emotional sway. In other words, the surprises engage readers rather than leaving them feeling manipulated by cheap plot tricks.

That sense of authenticity is likely due to the author's semi-autobiographical depiction of his protagonist. A Georgia transplant, Johnson made the same move as D'aron at one point in his life. "I never thought of myself as a Southerner until I moved to California," Johnson says. "That experience was sort of the planting of the seeds for the book. I came into adulthood in Georgia. I have strong emotional ties here, and I needed to set Welcome to Braggsville somewhere I care about."

The firsthand experience makes total sense in retrospect — the unclouded judgment and loyalty for both Braggsville and Berkeley mirrors the complex characterization of the fictional personalities within the book. At the risk of sounding like a '90s romantic comedy Johnson's oppositional, overly exaggerated locales feel like characters themselves — if only a generalized extension of their real inhabitants.

The dichotomy of stereotyped Southern culture and theory-based university liberalism sparks a natural comparison on the part of the reader: Which one is "right"? Are the politically correct Californians too sensitive? Are Southerners too blasé — or ignorant — about issues? From chapter to chapter opinions shift, which is, ultimately, the point of the novel. In the absence of absolute solutions to issues of race, it is here that the story of a student reveals the voice of a teacher. "As a writer I can't give answers always, but I can ask questions," Johnson says.

Johnson's authorial voice acts, in a grander sense, as an homage to Southern modernist literature, echoing both William Faulkner and Jean Toomer's use of stream of consciousness and overall plot structure. More current comparisons to Junot Díaz are not unfounded. More important is the effect this type of writing has on readers: It demands that audience approach the novel with an attention to detail rather than passive consumption. The structure and voice of the novel invite readers to think introspectively. What author Dwayne Alexander Smith does with role reversal in Forty Acres, Johnson does here with satire. Instead of pointing a finger, the author employs a charming use of self-deprecating humor in the hopes that we will do the same. Like D'aron's friend Louis hopes to do with comedy, Welcome to Braggsville is trying to wake us up. What do you say, people? Stop pressing "snooze."

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. William Morrow/HarperCollins. $25.99. 384 pp.

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