by T. Geronimo Johnson
384 pages—William Morrow, 2015
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
“In times like these it is difficult not to write satire,” wrote Juvenal in the late 1st or early 2nd Century AD, and this quote has recently come to rest on my shoulder like a parrot, pecking away at my ear. Pecking at my ear, for example, as I ordered T. Geronimo Johnson’s highly acclaimed, satirical novel Welcome to Braggsville (William Morrow, 2015) while the city of Baltimore erupted in pain and rage at the death of Freddie Gray; pecking at my ear as I flipped the first deckle-edged page while my Facebook newsfeed swarmed with petitions to remove Vanessa Place from the AWP Los Angeles conference committee; pecking at my ear as I began to read in earnest while a white police officer slammed a black teenaged girl to the ground and threatened her unarmed friends at gunpoint over a dispute at a McKinney, Texas pool party; pecking at my ear as I finished Johnson’s final, tumultuous pages while media and social media alike struggled to digest the revelation that Rachel Dolezal, the now resigned Spokane NAACP president, is in fact biologically Caucasian. “In times likes these,” I kept thinking, as my eyes moved from computer screen to book page and back, the relevancy of each new current event flashing the blue-gray light of ironic coincidence across Johnson’s tale of four millennial UC Berkeley students: D’aron/Daron Davenport, the awkwardly named, white protagonist from rural Georgia; Louis (Loose) Chang, a Malaysian comedian from San Francisco aspiring to be the next “Lenny Bruce Lee;” Candice Marianne Chelsea, an earnest and blonde-haired Iowan claiming Native American lineage; and Charlie Roger Cole, “a preppy black football player who sounded like the president.” After meeting as freshman outcasts at a party, the self-appointed Four Little Indians become fast friends; and in their sophomore year, at the encouragement of their “American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives” professor, they set out to stage a “performative intervention” at the Civil War reenactment held each year in Daron’s hometown, “Braggsville, The City That Love Built in the Heart of Georgia. Population 712.” Once the story veers out of “Bezerkerly” and into the Holler, events swing rapidly and catastrophically out of control.
Juvenal’s joke, of course, is that his statement is essentially timeless and will ring true regardless of the times in which it is spoken. And yet Johnson manages to take the joke a step further by exposing a time and social climate Juvenal could not possibly have imagined: modern-day America, in which all experiences are modulated through technology, compressed and collapsed into memes, hashtags, and tweets—the collective and cultural histories we carry with us into each experience collapsed as well until they are boiled down into tiny, egocentric, well-intentioned but perfectly ignorant, disconnected pods. This is the world of Internet warriors crossed with activists, where the tangled consequences of history can be compartmentalized by the click of a button, where privilege and entitlement are examined until they are no longer recognizable. And it is this world where the Four Little Indians find themselves, on the island of Berzerkerly, where the air is so thick with thought experiments and self-assured consciousness that a monocled professor actually suggests to his students that through “a staged lynching” in Braggsville, “You can force State’s Rights to take a look in the mirror and they will not like what they see.” Johnson’s scenario is hyperbolic, certainly, but for anyone who has been following the ways in which passion has trumped logic in some recent college protests (the case of Northwestern University students protesting a professor’s controversial essay comments regarding feminism by carrying mattresses, for example), it is eerily not out of the question.
Thus it is decided that the four friends will spend spring break traveling to Daron’s hometown, where the black residents still live in a separate part of town known as the Gully and every white family’s driveway is adorned with a pair of lawn jockeys, even’s Daron’s, “passed down from his grandfather, Old Hitch, who counted them creepier than bankers, he said, with those watermelon-red lips, but who kept them because his father had given them to him.” Louis and Candice are to dress as slaves and perform a mock lynching. Afterward, Daron and Charlie—who, at the last minute, back out of attending the lynching itself—are supposed to interview the townspeople and record their reactions. But after the performative intervention goes terribly wrong, the three remaining Little Indians find themselves not asking the questions, but struggling to answer them.
The irony employed in Welcome to Braggsville can feel, at times, like standing out under a cold, acid rain. There are jokes, plenty of them, and they’re funny, but they’re also the kind that peel the skin and twist the stomach. As a reader, one can’t help but feel personally implicated by the characters’ inability to see themselves and their world—which is, of course, just a parody of our world—for what it really is. This feeling is emphasized by Johnson’s omission of quotation marks throughout the novel, which creates a sort of naked vulnerability and increases the tendency for voices to blur. The effect of such a technique becomes particularly evident in repeat interrogations by the Sheriff and an FBI agent named Denver, as the voices of the Little Indians chime in with their respective answers, which are, at times, nearly indistinguishable from one another and create a sensation similar to that of a list poem. A series of reoccurring chapters written in the second person, though perhaps less subtle than many of Johnson’s other techniques, further heightens this impression of voice collapse, unmistakably turning the reader’s eye, and sense of shame, inward. Such hyper-awareness in the reader then stands in stark contrast to the main characters’ lack of understanding regarding the complex and systemic consequences and pervasive legacies of America’s painful racial history. Indeed, I felt a creeping guilt as I read, and my teeth ached when I laughed, as they do after a long run. Perhaps the peak of this response came for me when Daron concludes, in a moment of quiet contemplation after the Incident at Braggsville, that he is guilty only of “the sin of being born in a particular time and place.” Here Johnson takes Juvenal’s joke and raises it up over our heads like a whip, cracking it hard.
Johnson’s energetic and unending barrage of popular culture, historical, and literary allusions—with its coded, amalgamated language and inside quips—is simultaneously one of the novel’s greatest strengths and one of its greatest challenges. The technique is disorienting, too much to process. But it is meant to be. Johnson’s particular variety of satire packs irony like a wad of cotton into an open wound. His style mirrors the onslaught of the media, where heartbreaking atrocities are presented alongside attention-grabbing but ultimately distracting scandals until we lose all ability to process, prioritize, or even react. Again and again, our contemporary disconnect and insularity are made palpable through layers of historical and literary allusions, both overt and more subtle. For example, there is the obvious reference to Emmett Till made by Charlie’s mother: “It would not have been the first time a Chicago boy made his way South and fell into trouble from which he was dredged, taking second class down and the sleeper back, at least most of him. History always takes her piece, so the Devil can find his way home.” But there are also more subtle innuendos at work, such as a scene in which Daron enters his mother’s kitchen to call 911 after Candice emerges bloody and hysterical from the Holler and is struck by the sudden smell of bacon, a detail which recalls the famous Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” And when one stops to examine this poem more closely, it is difficult not to connect the last two lines of the first stanza—“Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite / Understood—the ballads they had set her to, in school.”—with the Four Little Indians and their misguided professor. And readers who are not active within the world of contemporary literature might easily miss a number of Johnson’s jabs. A passing reference to a Professor Kensmith, for example, struck me as a portmanteau of Kenneth Goldmsith, the conceptual poet who recently performed his preposterous reworking of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at Brown University.
Indeed, as one reads Welcome to Braggsville, it becomes easier and easier to find references and overlaps just about everywhere—in current media, in literature, in history—so many that one begins to question the line between intention and coincidence, to wonder if one is reading too much into things. But Johnson is ready for this reaction, addressing it in a most unexpected manner: through the voice of Deacon Woodbridge as remembered by Daron when recalling a childhood visit his grandmother’s church in the Holler. The church scene is bizarre and surreal—a foreshadowing of the much-more disturbing occurrences and truths Daron will uncover while stumbling in the woods behind his house—but the deacon gets to the heart of the matter: “Do you believe in coincidence? He is whispering now. Then you are in the wrong place. Louder, he is now. I believe in God, and God don’t make coincidences. Coincidences! Louder yet. That’s what we say when we don’t want to give Him on High credit, or we need to deny the truths that face us, when the writing is on the wall and we do not want to read it. It is a coincidence we say.” And denying the truths we don’t want to face—the complicities to which we are intrinsically linked by dint of our own existence and participation in society—is exactly what Johnson will not let us do. No, instead we must look, look, look until we cannot help but ask ourselves the Four Little Indians’ original interview questions: “Why can’t you look at this Medusa: history in its myriad inversions, loops, whorls, coils, corkscrews, spirals; from slavery to Jim Crow to the Carceral State; this Medusa: the Möbius trip; the helix that stitches the U.S. of A.’s social DNA; yes, coach goes to New York, but never disembarks; this Medusa: upon whom to gaze turns only heart to stone…”
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, critic, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in: Cider Press Review, Colorado Review, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Salamander, Sugar House Review, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.