Welcome to Braggsville
T. Geronimo Johnson
Published February 17, 2015
384 pages (hardcover)
Remember a couple years ago when small-town high school in Wilcox County, Georgia, had its first-ever racially-integrated prom a couple years ago? People all over (well, all over everywhere but the Deep South) were shocked that things like segregated proms still existed. Here’s a reminder:
The fictional Braggsville, Georgia, population 712, is reminiscent of Wilcox County. Every year, there is a festival called the Pride Week Patriot Days Festival, the highlight of which is a Civil War battle reenactment (not that anyone refers to it as the Civil War, of course). Black people live in the Gully; white people live on the other side of the Holler. Confederate flags and black lawn jockeys decorate houses. At local general stores, you can pick up bumper stickers with tasteful slogans like “IF YOU’RE ANY ‘CAN, EXCEPT AMERI-CAN—GO HOME” and “IF I’D KNOWN IT WOULD BE LIKE THIS, I WOULD HAVE PICKED MY OWN COTTON” and “KEEP HONKING—I’M RELOADING.”
D’aron Davenport is a white kid from Braggsville. He’s a vegetarian who gave up hunting (blasphemous in Braggsville!), and who feels “ready to be released into society.” He also happens to be the valedictorian of his class, so, upon graduation from high school, he escapes to Berkeley (“Berzerkely”).
Berkeley and Braggsville are, of course, as different as can be, and D’aron struggles to find his footing:
He held doors for the tender gender and all elders. Thank you and Please and May I adorned every conversation. Ma’am was an escape artist extraordinaire, often slipping out midsentence. Professors wagged their fingers, but even the one who claimed it aged her, Only slightly less subtly but just as permanently as gravity, appeared at moments to relish this memento of a bygone era, this sole American who, like foreign students and athletes, recognized the instructors as ultimate authorities, approaching their bunkers as shrines bearing cookies and other gifts in outstretched hands, like a farmer leaving a peck of apples or a pair of just-plucked broilers at his lawyer’s back door. Sir he could utter without censure.
[Note: Yes, that comma followed by the capital “O” is exactly how it appears in the text. There is a lot of questionable punctuation in this book. Mr. Johnson is not a fan of quotation marks, to be sure. More on that later . . .]
But soon, at a party, he meets the three people who become his best friends. Along with D’aron, they call themselves the “4 Little Indians”: Louis (a Malaysian wannabe stand-up comedian whose stage name is Lenny Bruce Lee), Candice (a staunch and earnest liberal, Midwestern white girl with dreadlocks . . . who claims to be one-eighth Native American), and Charlie (a black dude from inner-city Chicago who went to a rich boarding school on a football scholarship).
During the fall of their sophomore year, the 4 Little Indians decide to take a class together: American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives. On Fridays over lunch, the class meets for Salon de Chat, “an informal class with the tagline: People who don’t know their history are doomed to eat it!” The desks are arranged in four-tops, and the professor provides several discussion topics to cover over lunch. At one such Salon, D’aron mentions that his town hosts an annual festival that features a Civil War reenactment. His classmates are dumbfounded:
The table was shocked. The entire class in fact. They’d heard tell of Civil War reenactments, but they were still occurring? The War Between the States was another time and another country. As was the South. Are barbers still surgeons? Is there still sharecropping? What about indoor plumbing?
But then Candice has an idea, and the 4 Little Indians hatch a plan. They will travel to Braggsville for spring break (which happens to coincide with the annual festival) and, during the reenactment, they will stage a “performative intervention,” which they will videotape to submit as their final project for class:
Three of them would dress as slaves, one wearing a harness under his clothes. One would act as the master, cracking a whip and issuing random, absurd order. [. . .] Then the slave wearing the hidden harness would get uppity, maybe make some untoward comment about the lady of the plantation or try to run off or just complaint that there wasn’t enough salt in the food. Then the party would get started. That slave would be hoisted from a low limb as if lynched.
Seems like a great idea, right? So, as planned, the 4 Little Indians travel to Braggsville for spring break, where they are welcomed with open arms by D’aron’s family (who have tactfully hidden their black lawn jockeys in the garage). They visit the Waffle House and Lou Davis’s Cash-n-Carry Bait Shop and Copy Center and other charming Southern spots, which they absorb with shock and awe. Their visit is certainly education. Unfortunately, however, their planned “performative intervention” does not go off without a hitch. In fact, things go downhill very, very quickly.
I read the first 200 pages in one sitting. And I LOVED it. The writing was arresting; the story was fabulous. Here are some of the things I thought when I started reading the book (up until about page 200):
- Oh, my gosh. This is going to be a 4.5, for sure! This is the best start to a book I’ve read in ages. (The first chapter introduces you to protagonist D’aron by giving a run-down of the various nicknames by which he has been known over the years with their often unfortunate origins.).
- I love this guy’s voice. It’s unique, it’s distinct, it’s fun. I like that the writing is peppered with slang (although the glossary at the end of the book is kind of lame) and references to current events. This T. Geronimo Johnson kind of reminds me of Junot Díaz.
- Yes! This book smartly pokes fun at extreme liberalism/political correctness, the ridiculous culture of academia, and the deep-fried South. There are some great lines and paragraphs. Johnson does not shy away from making jokes about “sensitive” topics, which leads to many laugh-out-loud funny moments.
- Oh, wait. I thought this T. Geronimo Johnson guy was from the South. His Waffle House lingo is flawed! Hashbrowns with jalapenos aren’t “spiced.” They’re “peppered.” He needed a Southern editor.
But then it all went to poop. The rest of the book took me about a week to finish. I was so disappointed! How can a book that starts out so well end so badly?! Here are some of the things I thought as I was finishing reading the book (after about page 200):
- This book is trying too damn hard. An example: If you’re going to skip Chapter 13 and have it show up randomly between Chapters 21 and 22, then you should have a good reason to do so. Otherwise, stop trying to be cute.
- This climaxed WAY too early . . . and had absolutely nowhere to go (at least nowhere good). So, basically, it just flounders and rambles and wanders for 150 pages.
- Can we please send a memo to authors letting them know that standard punctuation should not be optional (see above)? Ugh.
- The end of this book is a 2, at best.
It seems like Johnson started with a great, fully fleshed-out idea for the book’s beginning . . . and then just started writing before he had figured the whole thing out. It’s unfortunate, really. I really loved the first half of this book, and I kind of hated the second half. So, I averaged out the halves and gave the book as a whole a 3. And there you have it.
- an Indie Next List pick for February 2015
Who should read it: I’m struggling with this. The beginning of this book is so good and the voice is so strong that it almost makes me forget how poorly it finishes. I will say this: if you’re a fan of Junot Díaz’s stuff (the brashness, the newness, the young vibe), then this might be worth checking out.
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet (a LibraryReads List selection for November 2014)