“Welcome to Braggsville” by T. Geronimo Johnson (William Morrow, 384 pages, $25.99)
The basic story line of T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel “Welcome to Braggsville” is straightforward and intriguing.
Take four young, liberal-minded students at the University of California at Berkeley. Then send them on a class project that includes a fake lynching to be sprung during a Civil War re-enactment in a small Georgia town.
What possibly could go wrong?
In Johnson’s telling, a lot can go wrong – both funny and frightful – as this cross-country mash-up of cultures provides a potent learning experience for the novel’s central figure, D’aron Davenport.
D’aron is a bright, gentle white student who grew up in Braggsville but fled to the more intellectually challenging environs of Berkeley. There he becomes fast friends with three classmates – Charlie, a black student-athlete; Louis, a Malaysian student with plans to be a stand-up comic; and Candice, a white student from Iowa whom D’aron would like to know as more than a friend.
While this may be the basic plot and cast of main characters, Johnson does not follow convention when it comes to structure and style. The narrative, for example, opens with a single sentence that runs on for more than a page of hip-hop-infused lingo that introduces D’aron through his youthful years – “D’aron the Daring, Derring, Derring-do, stealing base, christened D’aron Little May Davenport, DD to Nana, initials smothered in Southern-fried kisses …” – all leading up to his first day at Cal.
Over the course of the novel, scenes and events generally unfold in a more customary form, but the chronology is purposely choppy, and the dialogue at times encourages a second, closer reading.
These narrative diversions and jazzy prose riffs will frustrate some readers but thrill others, and overall Johnson deftly pokes dark fun at a wide swath of culture, high and low. With subtle humor, he skewers a range of targets, from a professor’s “Salon de Chat” at the university in Berkeley (also known as “Berzerkeley”) to the yahoo world of Braggsville. The town bills itself as “The City That Love Built in the Heart of Georgia, Population 712.”
It doesn’t love everyone, however. Racial and gender issues are spun around by Johnson as D’aron is filled with dread over the mock lynching and its aftermath. But as 21st-century American culture crisscrosses with the nation’s history, Johnson’s story evokes more than satirical humor. A sense of conscience and moral purpose takes shape at the heart of the book.
This is Johnson’s second novel. His first, “Hold it ’til it Hurts,” was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. His career includes teaching posts at UC Berkeley and the Iowa Writers Workshop.