Rarely do we encounter a work of fiction so unique and thought-provocative that it seems to cut its very own groove in twenty-first century American literature, but such is the case in my opinion with Welcome to Braggsville, the brilliant and delightfully satirical second novel by T. Geronimo Johnson. The last time I was struck so favorably by an idiosyncratic work such as this was upon reading Junot Diaz’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and indeed both novels share an authenticity of voice that not only add credibility to the fictional narratives but actually define these in some sense as their very own sub-genres.
The central protagonist of Welcome to Braggsville is D’aron Davenport, a white rural native of the tiny hamlet of Braggsville, Georgia, population 712, who parlays academic excellence and a clever application letter laden with sarcasm into acceptance at the University of California, Berkeley. An outsider trying to gnaw his way inside what he fondly characterizes as “Berzerkeley,” D’aron finally succeeds in bonding with Candice, a principled and attractive white chick from Iowa desperate to assert her one-eighth Native American heritage; Charlie, an athletic black dude from the Chicago hood of questionable sexual orientation; and Louis, a comedic Malaysian character from San Francisco. When D’aron lets drop that hometown Braggsville hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, he and his new friends – who have collectively dubbed themselves the “4 Little Indians” – uneasily conspire to stage a “performative intervention” protest, which, as events are to prove, decidedly does not go well.
It would not be giving away too much to reveal that Braggsville is a metaphor for the post-racial America that all of us – except perhaps for the snarky pundits on Fox News – have to acknowledge is anything but post-racial, and the “4 Little Indian” millennials represent a slice of its disparate denizens. Johnson, an African-American visiting professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, has managed through this superb and highly-original satire to write about race in America in a manner that somehow defies cliché and turns out to be both gut-wrenching and funny and ultimately tragic. I detected elements of William Faulkner’s Snopes novels, bits and pieces of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat Cradle phase, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire era, and even echoes of Allan Gurganus in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, but Welcome to Braggsville is most definitely not derivative. In contrast, Johnson’s innovative style seduces the reader with a multilayered narrative that in the end effectively distills both the awkwardness and the perfidy of entrenched racism that not only still characterizes America in 2015 but ultimately defines it.
Midway through the novel, D’aron’s father, in ridiculing a Berkeley class syllabus, indicts both racism and political-correctness, and thereby points to an uncomfortable truth that cannot help but make all of us squirm just a little bit: “I don’t need to go to college for this stuff. I woulda told you this, son: People generally aren’t too fond of people who are different. No one can warm to everybody. That ain’t never gonna change. Only thing’ll change is what counts as different, from time to time. So, try to take ‘em as individuals. Know you can’t fix the world. Get rid of niggers, you get coloreds. Get rid of coloreds, you got blacks. Get rid of blacks, you got African-Americans. It’s all the same if you don’t like ‘em. See, ‘cause if you don’t like ‘em, you’ll make some new shit that’s too clever for them to know all fuck what’s happening. Like Ed down in purchasing, he calls ‘em Mondays. You think that changes what’s in the man’s heart? … No. Why Mondays? … Nobody likes Mondays.” [p239-40]
Every paragraph is not as profound or stylized as that one, and like even the finest literature there are identifiable flaws here and there, but the overall package is nothing short of magnificent. If you want to read a novel that transcends the ordinary and serves up a salient chunk of a quintessential disorder that plagues contemporary America, then I highly recommend that you read Welcome to Braggsville. If you do, I can promise that it will stay with you – not unlike race in America – long after you thought you were done with it.