Bookshots: ‘Welcome to Braggsville’ by T. Geronimo Johnson
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Welcome to Braggsville
Who wrote it?
Another graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, T. Geronimo Johnson was also formerly a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and now teaches writing at the University of California - Berkley. His first novel, Hold It 'Til It Hurts, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Plot in a Box:
Four college students attend a Civil War re-enactment in the small town of Braggsville, Georgia, planning to protest the proceedings — with fatal results.
Invent a new title for this book:
I would call it: Four College Students Get it Wrong
Read this if you liked:
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother
Meet the book’s lead:
D’aron Little May Davenport is an average student from the small town of Braggsville, Georgia, whose only desire is to get as far away from home as possible when he goes to college — University of California, Berkely or ‘Cal’ is just about as far away as he can get without going to Alaska or Hawaii. And despite the spelling of his name, is white (this is important later).
Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:
A young Adam Sandler.
Setting: would you want to live there?
The plot switches primarily between Berkeley and Braggsville, and neither one sounds appealing: I’ve outgrown the college scene (even as a nutty humanities professor) and Braggsville seems to be part of small town America that isn’t particularly welcoming if you don’t live there already.
What was your favorite sentence?
How do we know stars aren’t just holes and God hasn’t just thrown a curtain over a cage?
I have to say this is a challenging book and, while I’d heard a bit of buzz around it, I didn’t really know what it was about. D’aron escapes Braggsville to go study at Berkeley where he finds three good friends at a ‘dot’ party, where all participants are asked to put a dot on a part of their anatomy as an icebreaker; all four put their dots on their foreheads, earning them the derision of the other party-goers. They leave the party and the 4 Little Indians are created: Candice (the white liberal with a conscience), Charlie (the black sportsman) and Louis Chan ( the self-styled Lenny Bruce Lee, kung fu comedian ) and D’aron become inseparable.
They find they’re taking a lot of the same classes where they’re being encouraged to stand up for what they believe in and demonstrate or protest where needed. In their American History class, D’aron mentions the annual Civil War re-enactment that takes place in his hometown of Braggsville. This captures the imagination of their professor, who suggests they stage some kind of demonstration/protest of an event that seems to celebrate a dark period in the country’s history. The 4 Little Indians set out for D’aron’s hometown to do just that.
And that’s where it all starts to go wrong. D’aron worries about how his family will be perceived, asking his mother to remove the black lawn jockeys and basically hide any suggestion of racism, unintentional or otherwise. It all goes downhill from there, with his friends mocking the bumper stickers at the local general store with slogans like “GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE, DANGEROUS MINORITIES DO” or “IF I’D KNOWN IT WOULD BE LIKE THIS, I WOULD HAVE PICKED MY OWN COTTON”. The demonstration during the re-enactment is even worse: the group decide to stage a “performative intervention”, basically a staged lynching. The consequences of this protest take over the rest of the book.
While the message about how we perceive racism in the modern world was pretty much rammed home, as I’ve found with other literary fiction, I couldn’t find any empathy for the characters — I didn’t really care what happened to D’aron and the rest of the Indians. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very funny parts to the story and I laughed out loud in places. Maybe it’s age, but it left me cold: the twists and turns weren’t really enough to rescue it for me.
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