Author tackles race relations through memorable novels

By Jeffrey Sartain - Guest Column
March 8, 2017 at 4:51 p.m.

Jeffrey Sartain

Jeffrey Sartain   Contributed Photo by K. Jordan for The Victoria Advocate

Speaking at the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series at noon on Thursday will be two-time novelist T. Geronimo Johnson, who among many accolades, found himself on the National Book Award Longlist in 2015 for his second novel, "Welcome to Braggsville."

The reading will take place in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. It is free and open to the public.

In "Welcome to Braggsville," Johnson has crafted one of the finest narratives of race and coming-of-age in recent years. About the deep and deepening contradictions of race, class and gender in American life, Johnson's second novel focuses on D'aron, a Georgia southerner who attends the University of California, Berkeley.

In part, the novel is about D'aron's coming of age, finding freedoms and worldviews at college that he never would have thought possible before. However, this novel also is a satire of those seemingly limitless freedoms of youth and how such idealized notions run aground in reality.

The novel explodes with the simmering tension of race relations in America, while at the same time containing genuinely heartfelt, honest, raw and funny portrayals of the characters who deliver the novel's memorable social message. If ever there was a time for a novelist to be tackling the thorny issues of race through the craft of fiction, it is now. Johnson does not shy away from the realities, tragedies, ironies and, yes, humor in the American considerations of race that he portrays.

His four main characters, all college students at Berkeley, live and breathe on the page. While a novel like this quickly could get sidetracked by abstract concepts and irony, Johnson skillfully grounds the humor and horror of the book. The characters each feel real; their emotions feel justified. As only a novel can do, each of the characters is given an individual voice and space to express their perspective and worldviews. It is in the tension between the various worldviews that a novel like "Welcome to Braggsville" does its most important work, allowing dialogue between ideas to occur between the characters.

It is in this critical dialogue that real social issues can be tackled, and a diverse variety of perspectives can be brought to bear on social problems. Indeed, the voicing of other perspectives and worldviews may be the most important work that all novels do, allowing readers a tiny window into someone else's reality.

On top of all this, Johnson's control of language and dialect is second to none. Really. The first line of the novel is a naming sentence for the main character, and that single sentence contains so much history and heart, I personally place it in the pantheon of great first sentences, along with Melville's great "Call me Ishmael" first line from "Moby Dick."

What Melville does with three simple words, Johnson expands, riffing and improvising and building the backstory for the main character, but all in the same first sentence. It's an incredible feat of stylistics, and Johnson follows it with a novel equally virtuous.

We hope you will join us for what promises to be a spectacular reading by T. Geronimo Johnson.

Jeffrey Sartain is the managing editor of American Book Review and an assistant professor of English in the UHV School of Arts and Sciences.


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