My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Shortly after I moved from North Carolina to the San Francisco Bay Area, I saw a promo for a TV documentary that described the Bay Area as “the epicenter of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.” It was my first inkling that the Bay Area thinks of itself as the center of a pre-Copernican universe, the celestial body around which all of the rest of humanity revolves.
A year or so later, my spouse and I were having dinner with a couple who introduced us to James Fowler’s six (or seven, counting Stage 0) Stages of Faith. Over bok choy and warm water with lemon, they told us with all seriousness that most parts of the world, especially the American South, are at Stage 2 (“Mythic-Literal”) while the Bay Area is at Stage 5 or Stage 6 (Stage 6 being “enlightenment”). (This couple also lived in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood because of the lower home prices and then hired a full-time Colombian nanny so they could send their daughter to private school and she would still learn Spanish.)
So, the weather is awesome, but the culture is a little full of itself. (“Why would you live anywhere else?”)
As such, I was tickled when T. Geronimo Johnson imported a bit of Bay Area intellectual hubris to small-town Georgia. One has a legitimate complaint if one takes issue with the surface friendliness of the South, but one must also admit to the shallow-judgmentalism-masquerading-as-cultural-sensitivity that pervades the (incredibly segregated) San Francisco Bay Area.
Welcome to Braggsville elicited a response in me similar to the one I get reading Faulkner. On one level, this is the “What the hell is this?” reaction I had to the first several pages of both this book and The Sound and the Fury. It took me a while to get used to Johnson’s style, and the absence of quotation marks still tripped me up on occasion to the end of the book. I say I like fiction that requires a little work on my part, but that doesn’t mean I don’t whine a bit when I first realize I can’t just sail through a novel.
On another level, there’s the subtle and not-so-subtle confrontation of race issues in the high humidity and rampant greenery of the South. I have much less doubt about Johnson’s personal opinion on racism than I do about Faulkner’s, but I appreciate the way that Johnson addressed the nuance and conflict within people who didn’t make the system but perpetuate it by being born into it, whether that system is in California or in Georgia.
And then there’s the thing where dead people have a voice. That’s pretty Faulkner, too.
In the middle of all of this is the angst of being a young adult trying to find one’s way, which is probably why I found myself considering not picking this back up even though I felt a strong pull towards reading more. At nearly forty, it seems I’ve still not come to terms with all of the stupid things I did and said during undergrad, and it’s a little challenging for me to read such a realistic portrayal of the simultaneous doubt and over-confidence, the clumsy exploration of one’s power and freedom (intellectual, sexual, etc.) and the limits thereof.
I wasn’t a fan of the inquest scene (courtroom scenes rarely hold my interest) and some of the after-dark stuff that happens in Braggsville is still confusing to me, but overall I enjoyed riding along with Johnson on this tour of the U.S. of A.
In this book are so many issues of intimacy and relationships, both individual and institutional, and the influence we have both locally and more broadly whether we intend to have influence or not. But the idea I think I’ll chew on the longest is the notion that sometimes the effects of an action take a long time to ripple out, and that sometimes a thing’s worth doing even if it hurts.