When was the last time you were shocked by a turn in a novel? Not merely surprised or astonished but actually stunned? T. Geronimo Johnson makes it happen twice in his second novel, "Welcome to Braggsville" — first, about a third of the way in and, again, toward the end of the book.
That I can't be more specific is one challenge of writing about this excellent work of fiction, since I don't want to give these essential shifts away. Suffice it to say, then, that "Welcome to Braggsville" is audacious, unpredictable, exuberant and even tragic, in the most classic meaning of the word.
"Daron cringed when she said tragedy," Johnson writes of his protagonist, a UC Berkeley sophomore born and raised in Braggsville, Ga. "Everybody knows better. The first fact they learned in his course on Greek theater (or in any introductory lit theory class) was that a tragedy arose when one faced two competing claims of equal magnitude. Hence, when Antigone is faced with either abandoning her brother Polynices's rotting corpse to cook the air in accordance with Creon's dictates or burying her sibling in accordance with family duty, she faces tragedy. When a drunken idiot falls asleep at the wheel or knob or whatever it is and the subway crashes, that is not tragedy."
Berkeley, the Deep South, Greek tragedy: These are just a few of the elements that run through "Welcome to Braggsville," which is about the clash of cultures, on both personal and collective terms. Daron is a case in point: white, the product of what seems an enlightened home, an enlightened community, except for the Civil War reenactment the town stages every year.
For Daron, there's nothing strange about that until he mentions it in his "American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives" seminar. "The table was shocked," Johnson tells us. "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? Like an old Looney Tunes skit, Tex Avery tag ensued."
Such a passage offers a hint of Johnson's method, a heady mix of satire and hyperbole. At times, "Welcome to Braggsville" reads like a literary hybrid of David Foster Wallace and Colson Whitehead: word-besotted, incorporating references that are, by turns, high and pop cultural, while piercing the pretensions of academia and the complacencies of small-town life.
Daron's history class includes his three best friends, Louis (Loose) Chang, a Malaysian stand-up from San Francisco; Charlie, a gay African American from Chicago; and Candice, a blond from Iowa. The quartet calls itself "the 4 Little Indians." If this sounds like a riff on the melting pot (or, better yet, the glorious mosaic) of post-everything America, that is entirely the point.
Part of what Johnson is after is to skewer political correctness, but his critique is more trenchant than mere parody. Rather, his intent is to highlight the complicity of everyone, from the reenacters, with their historical blindness, to the campus activists with their disconnected culture-speak.
Thus, when Candice suggests protesting the reenactment with "a performative intervention" over spring break, their professor crows, "That's even better! … You can force States' Rights to take a look in the mirror and they will not like what they see." The plan is for the four undergraduates to go to Braggsville and stage a lynching, dressing as slaves and using a hidden harness to hoist one of the Little Indians into the low limbs of a tree.
To call this loaded is to underplay its edge of provocation, which is precisely what makes "Welcome to Braggsville" work so well. Daron and his friends go back to Georgia armed with little more than theory. "It's a form of 4-D art," one of them explains. "It's activism. It's the way of the future. … Mass marches are inherently exclusive because access is restricted by geography and mobility, thereby fortifying the enduring social asymmetry they seek to undo. Instead, imagine a thousand performative interventions wherever injustice occurs, whenever it occurs. Social justice meets vaudeville. ... It's the poetry of performance. Me, you, black, white. It's all an act. … Vershawn Ashanti Young says even race is a performance."
That this is true, in some sense, is irrelevant; try telling that to Eric Garner or Michael Brown. Although Johnson's novel does not touch on them, it is impossible to read without imagining them as context, especially after the protest goes terribly, unexpectedly wrong.
On the one hand, this offers an effective plot point, a way to shift from campus satire into something far more nuanced and profound. On the other, it offers a commentary on the uselessness of theory in the real world, where actions speak louder than thought.
Johnson, who was a 2013 PEN/Faulkner finalist for his first novel, "Hold It 'Til It Hurts," and has an M.A. from Berkeley in language, literacy and culture, clearly knows the territory — his lampooning is trenchant and to the point. But it is what happens afterward that elevates "Welcome to Braggsville" to the level of art.
"How did anyone, anyone, any-damn-one, in this country, for Methuselah's sake, rise above the mire," he writes late in the novel. "Bootstraps? How did anyone live without salt and pepper, speak plain and easy?"
What he's talking about is language, the way we hide what we're saying behind layers of euphemism, uttered in a "tone which was first cousin to that patronizing timbre used to announce the choo-choo train entering the tunnel where babies were fed." The implication is that we have allowed ourselves to be infantilized by both the traditionalists and the radicals, who use language to manipulate rather than to explain.
"Be a word herder," Johnson cautions. "The powerful intellect leashed by an impoverished vocabulary is a myth."
That's a key point and an important moment in a novel full of language and ideas. Johnson is a terrific storyteller, and he moves fluidly from past to present, place to place. In the end, no one is right and everyone is — or perhaps it's the other way around.
More to the point is his vision, his ability to shock us, in ways both astonishing and inevitable. The world is too complicated for easy summaries or abstractions, he means to tell us, whether in the classroom or the weirdness of an adult dress-up game.
"No man," Johnson writes, "can carry another man's cross. You may think you can but you only delay their journey." That's as true of Daron as it is of any character in this novel — and, indeed, of every one of us.
Welcome to Braggsville
T. Geronimo Johnson
Morrow: 354 pp., $25.99