At the end of Welcome to Braggsville, his ambitious new novel about a group of idealistic students from Berkeley who crash a Civil War reenactment, T. Geronimo Johnson cites a sentence widely (though perhaps mistakenly) attributed to Harriet Tubman: “I’ve freed thousands of slaves, and I could have freed thousands more had they known they were slaves.” Regardless of whose words these really are, Johnson has drawn inspiration from them in constructing a novel whose vision and structure derive from an impulse to expose the wide net of cultural control that he sees spread across America. Who are Johnson’s enslaved? Just about everybody, from streetwalkers to Wall Streeters, from the poorly educated to the educational elite, from backwoods down-and-outs to fashionable urbanites. A tiny few might be aware of their enslavement, but most aren’t, even those who believe they are acting independently and forthrightly but who are actually following paths and making choices that the system has already established. Johnson here draws upon the work of French scholar Michel de Certeau, whose ideas are cited and briefly summarized in the novel: “organized power structures use strategies, and the subjugated or disempowered use tactics. In other words, ‘governments make maps and pedestrians make shortcuts.’” A question put forth by the novel’s protagonist haunts Johnson’s novel and world: “How did anyone, anyone, any-damn-one, in this country, for Methuselah’s sake, rise above the mire?”
Johnson explores this question most crucially within the novel in his portrayal of the chain of events set in motion by the Civil War reenactment’s disruption, a portrayal profoundly shaped by his deep knowledge of contemporary critical and cultural theory. At times the theoretical apparatus he works into the novel makes for discomfiting reading, particularly in its deliberate mystifications and distortions, as well as its fragmented structure. The narrative, for instance, is often interrupted by extended commentaries and deliberately jarring (if relevant) interludes, including an academic paper that presents a different perspective on a crucial event in the book. Johnson also includes a glossary, at once mocking and serious, as well as a Works Cited page, some of which is made up and which includes the novel itself. The glossary entry for Judith Butler, whose work is mentioned several times and unmistakably shapes Johnson’s thinking, reads simply: “Everything.”
Such unsettling narrative manipulation departs markedly from Johnson’s first novel, Hold It ’Til It Hurts, which, despite some chronological shifts, moves compellingly forward without dizzying complication. Even with their vastly different structures, the two novels do share similar concerns, particularly the endemic and damaging racism, subtle and otherwise, facing black people in the United States. Both novels also interrogate various options for effecting meaningful change, in oneself as well as in one’s community, once the scale of that racism is understood and confronted. Crucial to both novels, moreover, is a fundamental matter facing everyone: how to marshal the multiple selves by which we all live (and perform, as Judith Butler would say) into a coherent self that can effectively reconcile the selfish longing for self-preservation with the unselfish desire to follow one’s ideals, whatever the personal risk. In both novels the failure to help friends in grave danger haunts the protagonists, bringing them eventually to understand, in the observation of Achilles, the protagonist of Hold It ‘Til It Hurts: “Maybe it was easier to care about things you couldn’t fix, like world peace, than to care about people who were present and needed you.”
Beyond the novels’ shared themes, Welcome to Braggsville’s complex structure suggests that Johnson is upping the ante of his artistic enterprise, pushing the limits of narrative and taking greater risks to get his message across. In this risk taking, I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s observations about the challenges facing those writers, herself included, who felt that they had to use extreme narrative measures—such as shock, exaggeration, and distortion—to communicate their vision. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” O’Connor famously wrote, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” With Welcome to Braggsville, Johnson appears to be following O’Connor’s lead, though his concerns are of course quite different from hers. The deeply religious O’Connor grappled mightily to convey to what she believed were her unbelieving readers the profundity of the Christian mysteries; the deeply political and philosophically savvy Johnson struggles to compel his complacent readers to recognize the ways that poisonous racism has shaped—and continues to shape—themselves and their society. It’s an extremely difficult task, and there are places, particularly in a few of the interludes, where Johnson pushes the novel toward confusion rather than clarity. Once again one thinks of O’Connor, who warned that for the novelist of extremes the central problem was figuring out how far to distort without destroying.
There’s a specific fictional device used by Johnson that also reminds me of O’Connor. One of the tactics O’Connor often used in her fiction was to begin a story in one mode and conclude it in another. Often she would develop a story as if it were simply a lighthearted exposé of Southern foibles, only in the end, usually in a moment of shocking violence, to reveal that her narrative was actually plumbing the depths of ultimate matters, which for O’Connor were divine grace and human redemption (or damnation). “You can suggest something obvious is going to happen but you cannot have it happen in a story,” O’Connor wrote to a friend. “You can’t clobber any reader while he is looking. You divert his attention, then you clobber him, and he never knows what hit him.” Johnson employs a similar strategy in Welcome to Braggsville, beginning with a relatively straightforward plot, a coming-of-age story satirically highlighting the shortcomings of Southern culture, only in a moment of crushing violence to explode that narrative and all the assumptions that go with it. The novel suddenly becomes something quite different: an exploration of the deceits by which all Americans live, deceits so deep-seated that the very notions of growth and coming of age are perhaps merely chimeras.
The protagonist of Welcome to Braggsville is D’aron, a sensitive young white man completely out of sync with the life of his small Georgia hometown. Unlike his friends and more generally his community, he’s more concerned with books and school than guns and hunting. The novel opens with a roll call of the many tags with which he’s been slapped, including Brainiac, Sissy, Turd Nerd, Buttercup, Donut Hole, Hippie, and, most often, Faggot (any sign of difference, such as becoming a vegetarian, brings this label). Not surprisingly, D’aron yearns to get away, going so far as to structure an essay for a college application as a letter to a parole board requesting his freedom. Despite pressure from his father to stay close to home by attending the University of Georgia, D’aron chooses to go about as far away as he can and still be in the US—to the University of California, Berkeley.
His decision is based not merely on distance, however. Besides knowing that Berkeley is one of the nation’s elite institutions, D’aron sees it as a hotbed of liberating intellectualism that stands at the far extreme from his oppressive traditional upbringing. That Berkeley is located in California, a mecca in the American imagination of freedom and independence, only adds to its appeal. In heading west, D’aron seeks to live the American dream: to leave his past behind, start over, and move forward into the future. When he concludes his high school valedictory speech, now ready to hit the road, he sees himself entirely free, no longer compelled to listen to all the voices that have heretofore controlled him. Once at Berkeley, despite some adjustment problems, D’aron—who now goes by Daron—finds the freedom intoxicating and is thrilled about “his decision to go westward-ho!” Before long, he happily deems Berkeley “Berzerkeley,” finding it weirdly fascinating, exciting, and alluring. “Berzerkeley and Braggsville,” he observes, “were two worlds always on opposite sides of the sun.”
The novel takes a turn when Daron and his three close friends, Charlie, Louis, and Candice, decide to disrupt a Civil War reenactment in Braggsville, as a class project in their American-history course. Drawing upon Judith Butler’s idea that the roles people play in their everyday lives are “all enactments of concretized ideologies,” the four students (now calling themselves the “4 Little Indians”) plan to act out the death of a slave in the middle of the reenactment celebration. As Candice puts it, “having a Civil War reenactment without slaves is like setting a love story during a bubonic plague outbreak and never having anyone get sick. Gabriel García Márquez never wrote a novel called Love in the Time of Cold and Flu Season.” The 4 Little Indians understand their enterprise as “performative intervention,” theater of the real that disrupts normal patterns of conduct. With their intervention, they intend to “expose how accepted wisdom reinforces normative middle-class Christian values and sexual mores to our common detriment.”
Up until the intervention, Welcome to Braggsville works largely as a story celebrating D’aron’s liberation from his controlling Southern upbringing, as D’aron evolves into Daron. But with the intervention’s disastrous outcome, a terrifying moment of O’Connor-esque violence, D’aron/Daron’s story unravels and many new stories begin. With one of the 4 Little Indians dead under mysterious circumstances, the novel now shifts to exploring the myriad responses to the intervention, not only by the three remaining Little Indians, but also by the people of Braggsville, the national media, the FBI, students and faculty at Berkeley, and various activist and interest groups. Several more complicated worlds suddenly open up, calling into question the easy assumptions about Southern and American culture that the novel’s gentle satire has heretofore been seemingly affirming.
After the death, Welcome to Braggsville turns on its head just about everything that it had set up before. “Question” now becomes the key word, as the novel focuses on solving the mystery of what happened at the reenactment, mainly through the numerous interrogations Daron now faces, by friends, family, the media, the police, the court, and the university. Once secure in his identity as Daron, he now becomes D’aron/Daron, his identity repeatedly slipping and sliding from one to the other, as he responds to the interrogations and embarks on his own self-questionings. A refrain echoes throughout the novel: Nothing is as it seems. And, before long, even that observation comes under question. Might it not be, as D’aron observes, that “everything was exactly as it fucking seemed, people just preferred to pretend otherwise”?
The town of Braggsville, despite its claims, is revealed to be grounded upon a racist foundation and supporting infrastructure, including a secret militia that quietly but effectively upholds the town’s segregated ways. Daron himself comes to fear that rather than being liberated from Braggsville he might himself still be enmeshed in its unacknowledged racist underpinning. Might not Daron, he wonders, only be pretending to be Daron? Might he actually have been D’aron all along, at heart an unreconstructed good ole Southern boy? When Candice, for instance, staggers into his home after the reenactment, clothes torn and askew, Daron immediately believes she has been raped—not by the white reenactors with whom she’s been but by the black men D’aron instinctively imagines must have raped her. In this fantasy, D’aron is clearly gripped by the traditional white South’s racist ideology that is centered on the image of the voracious black beast, precisely the ideology that Daron thinks he has long ago left behind. Candice, in fact, has not been raped, and it is only D’aron, until that moment performing as Daron, who jumps to this conclusion. The oft-heard wisdom of Nana, D’aron’s grandmother, now rings frighteningly true: D’aron’s frequent jumping to conclusions is really his jumping into confusion.
Pretending to be otherwise, however, is not limitedto Southerners and Southern culture. In fact, the novel suggests that it’s the mental state of the entire nation, particularly regarding matters of race, a point made simply and directly in the novel’s glossary, where the entry for “Braggsville” is “see U.S. of A.” and that for “U.S. of A.” is “See Braggsville.” This closed circle of equivalency is worked out more fully and damningly in the depiction of Berkeley, which, once its masks are stripped away, comes to look a lot like Braggsville in its enforcement of conformity. Not that Berkeley is openly racist, but neither is Braggsville, as its racist substructure is masked by Southern charm and manners. While students and faculty at Berkeley champion diversity and intellectual freedom, those principles, the novel shows, are enforced just as rigidly as those of the most confining small town in the South. In fact, the 4 Little Indians come together as a group when a joke goes bad at a party and the four are set upon for their supposed intolerance by a truly intolerant group of students. “What is it with Berkeley,” thinks Candice, “that you can’t make any kind of joke, even accidentally?”
The academic enterprise at Berkeley, despite the classroom rhetoric of justice and freedom, likewise straitjackets thought and expression. Academic jargon, Daron quickly learns, draws him into a mystifying world in which language has little to do with his—or anybody’s—everyday life. Pressured to talk the talk, Daron early on is lost in a sea of floating signifiers, eventually coming to understand his plight: “Words were different, definitions ramifying until a profusion of meanings rendered them meaningless… . Words he’d long thought he understood grew to unwieldy dimensions, taking on new connotations and denotations both.” When his history professor suggests he refashion the horrifying events of the reenactment intervention into an honors thesis, D’aron realizes that “[i]t was precisely the perverse type of academic thinking that caused the mess in the first place. It was as though academics thought the entire world was some kind of ant farm constructed for their pleasure and enjoyment and strained observations.” Daron has had enough and decides not to return to college.
But where can he go? There’s no place for him anymore in Braggsville, and he wouldn’t want to return there anyway, knowing what he does about its hidden network of racist power. Eventually he moves to New Orleans, enrolling in Loyola University and living with Candice, establishing a middle ground between the social and political extremes (even if they share similar systems of control) of Braggsville and Berkeley. Living in this liminal space entails drawing from what he has learned about society’s systems of domination with the down-home knowledge of the significance of ethical values and commitment, absorbed from his parents and grandparents (despite their being enmeshed in the oppressive Southern system). Indeed, this inherited knowledge, what Daron calls “the soil of lived truth,” circulates throughout the novel, often undercutting the youthful pretensions of Daron and his Berkeley friends, as when his mother upbraids him for calling her “saccharine”: “I assume you mean artificial. I am not artificial, and I’m right appalled and embarrassed that you would say that about me, and suggest it in front of your friends.” Or when Daron recalls the advice of Nana when he thinks about how people have responded to the 4 Little Indians’ failed efforts at activism: “The good Lord speaks with fire on tongue but man heeds man’s advice only if spoken softly, almost hummed.”
The epigraph to Welcome to Braggsville, “Meet the New World, same as the Old World,” harks back to the well-known line from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” It’s not a comforting message, suggesting that however much a social order might appear to change, even through revolution, there’s really no change at all. Certainly that does seem to be one of the novel’s messages, particularly in its equating Braggsville with Berkeley and indeed more generally the entire nation. But with his final chapter Johnson appears to be suggesting something else, and it is perhaps the song’s title rather than its revised line that carries the novel’s ultimate message. Even though the 4 Little Indians’ direct action has failed to usher in a new order, the surviving three have grown immensely, personally and politically, from the experience. “We were reenacting American history,” Charlie says of the group’s intervention, suggesting that the ongoing discrimination against black people in the United States is best understood as one long continuous Confederate reenactment. Armed with this insight and knowledge (Charlie goes on to enumerate the abuses blacks suffer in the United States, the passage running for two pages), it’s clear that Daron, Candice, and Charlie won’t be fooled again. And that’s exactly what Johnson hopes for readers of Welcome to Braggsville.