The most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year is called “Welcome to Braggsville.” The 44-year-old author, T. Geronimo Johnson, plays cultural criticism like it’s acid jazz. His shockingly funny story pricks every nerve of the American body politic. Arriving smack dab in the middle of Black History Month — our shortest month, naturally — “Braggsville” lashes self-satisfied liberals in the academy and self-deluded Confederates in the attic. As we feign surprise at police brutality and our Twitter outrage flits from Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland, this is just the discomfiting book we need.
The story opens with Johnson’s scat-singing introduction to a polite white teen from Georgia named D’aron Little May Davenport. His whole life, D’aron has been mocked and bullied for his academic skill — a sure sign of wimpiness and questionable sexual orientation in a community that “produced more Special Forces soldiers per capita than any other town in America.” Desperate to get out of Braggsville, D’aron composes a series of college application essays — reproduced here in all their pimply teenage earnestness — that would excite any admissions officer’s savior complex.
The class of academic satires has been overenrolled for a while now, but make room for this brilliant send-up of the postmodern, hypersensitive, non-essentializing, gender-neutral world of the University of California at Berkeley. (Johnson must have gorged on its absurdities when he earned a master’s degree there.) In this strange place, “where the elsewhere unimaginable was mere mundanity,” D’aron arrives like some Southern-fried Candide, dazzled by the foreign nomenclature, the “designer-sneaker Zapatistas” and the rainbow of races.
Of course, satirizing this politically correct world is tantamount to euthanizing fish in a cruelty-free barrel, but Johnson is better at mocking academia than anybody since David Lodge, and his narration has such athleticism that you feel energized just running alongside him — or even several strides behind. His sentences are long and jaggy, sparked with stray cultural references. He dips unpredictably into other characters’ voices, volleying their jokes and pet phrases, nesting ironies within ironies. He feints between first and second person, he moonwalks into history, he spins from comedy to tragedy to editorial in a single paragraph. In short, Johnson does things you don’t think are advisable, which makes his success all the more awesome.
But “Welcome to Braggsville” isn’t all linguistic acrobatics at the expense of its characters. Johnson writes about D’aron with real heart. He cradles this young man’s innocence and sympathizes with his desperation to fit in — which D’aron finally does during the second semester, when he meets a group of oddballs who call themselves “the 4 Little Indians” (Ironical reclamation of racist tropes is so empowering!) There’s Louis, a Malaysian American from the Bay Area, who wants to be “the next Lenny Bruce Lee, kung fu comedian”; Charlie, an African American from Chicago who looks like he’s on the football team; and Candice, who claims she’s part Native American and can out-outrage even the most self-righteous posers. (Don’t discount Johnson’s Apache middle name. To D’aron, so long denied any interesting friends, these three are a gift. He “desperately wanted to hug them all, and instead would settle for the huddles between bursts of Frisbee football.”
The whole novel turns on a stray comment in a class called “American History, X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives”: D’aron mentions that his home town stages a Civil War reenactment every year during its Pride Week Patriot Days Festival.
The class is shocked. “They’d heard tell of Civil War reenactments,” Johnson writes, “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. Charlie gawked at Louis, who gawped at Candice, who generously suggested it as a capstone project to the professor, who Googled the event and announced that it coincided with spring break. Serendipity has spoken.”
“In the wink of a cat’s eye,” a clever, incredibly offensive, potentially disastrous plan is born: D’aron and his three friends will travel back to his hometown and stage a “performative intervention”: a mock lynching. “You can force States’ Rights to take a look in the mirror,” the professor crows, “and they will not like what they see.”
From that bizarre premise hangs a story that will shock and disturb you. The trip to Braggsville — population 712, once a contender for the capital of Georgia — offers Johnson a chance to descend into the fetid pool of Southern pride that still romanticizes the antebellum era. D’aron’s parents and neighbors are perfectly pleasant people who just happen to have black lawn jockeys in their yards and racist bumper stickers on their trucks. It’s all in fun — Don’t you get it? How could these nice people be racists? — Braggsville is, after all, “The City That Love Built.” Everybody knows that the black people who live way off on the other side of town in the Gully are happy there. And that enormous Confederate flag wrapped around the watchtower? Just a symbol of civic pride. Yes, the town’s Civil War “reenactments were reinstated back in the 1950s in response to mandated integration,” but that doesn’t mean those nostalgic battle skits have anything to do with slavery. The war was about states’ rights, don’t you know?
Johnson is a master at stripping away our persistent myths and exposing the subterfuge and displacement necessary to keep pretending that a culture built on kidnapping, rape and torture was the apotheosis of gentility and honor. But “Welcome to Braggsville” is not just a broadside at the South. It’s equally irritated with liberalism’s self-righteousness. The 4 Little Indians imagine that their moral superiority and clever theatricality will somehow shame and cleanse the townspeople who witness the faux lynching.
When that ill-conceived plan goes horribly wrong, the narrative begins to bend and fracture — a virtual reflection of America’s crafty efforts to disguise and obfuscate its history of racial violence. Flecked with surrealism, the novel loops back on the “performative intervention” and its aftermath from different perspectives, exploring the malleability of meaning and the deadly effects of a culture that ignores or misunderstands its own prejudices. (Amid the op-ed frenzy that explodes after the mock lynching goes viral, Berkeley responds with a colloquium called “The Body Linguistic: Syntax, Sexicons, and Civil Rights.”)
At times in this comic novel, I could hear strange echoes of another one about a well-meaning white kid striking out against the racist system of his day: Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It, too, concludes with a humiliating “performative intervention”: a mock slave escape. But that comparison is clouded with complications as muddy as the Mississippi. A more contemporary soulmate may be Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson, who works in the same disorientingly witty way to explore the persistence of anti-Semitism. You think you know where both men stand, but the ground around them is slick with irony and blood.
In light of new research from the Equal Justice Initiative about the prevalence of lynchings and the country’s demonic success at rendering them historically invisible, this extraordinary novel could not be more relevant. With young D’aron, Johnson forces us to consider our determined ignorance and naivete. Part of growing up in America, he knows, is learning how to negotiate that national amnesia.
Welcome to Braggsville. It’s about time.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
WELCOME TO BRAGGSVILLE
By T. Geronimo Johnson
Morrow. 354 pp. $25.99