At first blush, the title of T. Geronimo Johnson’s second novel, Welcome to Braggsville, tempts us with the suggestion of hospitality. Might we be invited into this charming fictional Georgia town, population 712? There we meet D’aron Davenport, a present-day high school senior who has won a scholarship to attend the University of California, Berkeley. In a community where almost everyone starts work at the local factory after graduation or enrolls at the state university, D’aron is a misfit among his peers. His inclinations toward book learning and conspicuous displays of emotion earn him volleys of homophobic slurs.
D’aron’s conviction that his destiny lies somewhere else, though correct, is severely tested once he arrives at Cal. Here, a few teary breakdowns notwithstanding, his Southern, white, working-class masculinity emerges in stark relief against the backdrop of the college-educated middle classes. When the narrator reports that the infamous weight gain of the “freshman 15” had “gone the other way” for him, we may nod knowingly, guessing that even the richest dining hall fare pales in comparison to the servings on his family dinner table.
After a discussion about civil disobedience in an American history class, D’aron and three friends—an Asian American roommate with transnational connections, a white Iowan woman claiming Native ancestry, and an African American man from Chicago—decide to travel to D’aron’s hometown to stage what they proudly call a “performative intervention” at the Braggsville Civil War reenactment. Their involvement has a disastrous outcome that implicates everyone. As one minor character observes about the irony of protesting the event, “Protest? Isn’t the reenactment already a protest?”
The Asian American roommate’s accidental death during the demonstration—hanged from a tree—forces the three remaining friends to confront their respective places in US society. The tragedy brings them together in a collective reckoning yet also drives them apart, as each attempts to shed the trauma in his or her own way.
Cultural critic Leslie Bow’s 2010 book, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South, provides a counterpoint to the fictional world that Johnson crafts. According to Bow, the Asian-raced figure’s enduring foreignness to the topography of Jim Crow causes actual Asians and Asian Americans who find themselves in the South to occupy ambiguous positions in the region’s conventions of separate but equal.1 What’s more, they serve as buffers between the racial poles of black and white, a phenomenon visible in, for instance, the pattern of Asians and Asian Americans keeping shops in African American neighborhoods avoided by white business owners, or the commonness of marriages between Chinese American men and black women in the early 20th century, despite anti-miscegenation laws.2
In Welcome to Braggsville, Louis Chang, D’aron’s Asian American roommate, is both a boisterous presence and an overwhelming absence. He is the only character willing to call out the white Iowan for claiming to be part Native, quipping, “Aren’t we all?” On the other hand, he thinks nothing of buying shoe polish to don blackface. His presence in the novel persists long after the episode recounting his death; like Rufus in James Baldwin’s Another Country, Louis yokes together the friends he leaves behind even as they wish it otherwise. The narrative’s dizzying spin around him makes sense of a host of forces shaping Southern history: state surveillance, the sanctity of white womanhood, and the iconography of the Confederate Flag, the last of these fatefully poignant now in the context of recently successful campaigns for its removal from official public display.
Johnson’s story of a white adolescent from modest means encountering culture shock when leaving home for school may recall Curtis Sittenfeld’s best-selling novel Prep (2005). The way students displaced from their familiar surroundings respond by disavowing their origins—what D’aron’s father calls “shitting on your own shoe”—features in both texts. The similarities end there, however. Whereas Sittenfeld brought us close to her protagonist, following her through four years of boarding school, with intimate access to her interiority, Johnson promises similar access only to deny it. When his narrator describes the half-truths about Louis’s death on social media as “sawdust really, rumors and hearsay gathered from student blogs, Tumblrs, the news, Facebook,” we realize in a moment of metacritical insight that this might also easily be read as a description of D’aron’s characterization in the novel.
Like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and other Southern Renaissance writers, Johnson can produce language that is idiosyncratic to the point of opacity—the better, perhaps, to compel appreciation of the medium’s intrinsic beauty, but he is not staking a nativist, autochthonous claim for a regional arts and culture practice in the face of Northern snobbishness. Instead, his references to this earlier tradition are tongue-in-cheek, even irreverent. In one scene, the police question Louis’s African American friend about how he died. He is asked, “Do you hate the South?” The level-headed response—“No sir, I’m quite unfamiliar with the South, Sir, except for the last twenty-four hours”—evokes Quentin’s climactic outburst at the end of Absalom, Absalom! However, Johnson diffuses its intensity and, with deadpan aplomb, puts it in the mouth of a black character.
Contrary to what its title suggests, Welcome to Braggsville is not a stereotypically hospitable invitation to a stigmatized and little-understood region of the United States. The intimacy it purports to set up between an ethnographic narrator and a reader posing as a tourist runs smack into a nearly opaque (if colorful) border fence. A more sophisticated interpretation might claim that the novel is really about the self-congratulatory milieu of “Bezerkeley,” not the rural South. However, Johnson astutely shows us that attempts to fully know any cultural space through a piece of literature is misguided.