We remember, don’t we, the three acts of horror and disillusionment played out some few years ago, events that burned off layers of naivete, that provoked not quite enough earnest reflection, and that generated considerable and to a degree understandable reaction. The first blow the most shocking—the planes used as missiles, the agony, rare in the US past, of being attacked. The second: dual wars of choice in the Middle East, the accounting of which can never be completed even if the decade-long story could be fully narrated. The wars were off the books in the first place, and there are no numbers that could truly tally both the ignominy and the misery. And finally, as though playing out the third act of a classical tragedy, the wound in the nation itself, with only itself to blame. Hurricane Katrina–eight years ago this month–revealed the racial, economic, environmental, and political fault lines in a society shockingly underdeveloped for all its “superpower” status. The Louisiana National Guard, after all, was deployed in the Middle East when the levees broke.
In many ways, these remain current events even if they no longer dominate news cycles, even if they are not able to dislodge royal births or Carlos Danger. The journalists’ first draft of history has no doubt yielded some gems. Historians, normally more reluctant to engage contemporary affairs, have not been shy about writing of them. But with the freedom that fiction affords, a first-time novelist may have captured the new century’s intertwined crises better than anyone, while also speaking to the fraught question of race at yet another of those dreaded “national conversation” moments. T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ‘Til It Hurts investigates the battlefields of “Godamnistan” and urban America and the physical and psychic costs of each. That he writes eloquently and probingly about young black men in the era of Trayvon Martin is a major plus. Johnson’s novel, like Ryan Coogler’s recent film Fruitvale Station, provides the culture at large with an authentic black voice while it unfortunately still remains daring to do so.
Coogler works on a smaller canvas—a tragic day in the life, building toward a wrenching, agonizing moment that really happened and that we know is coming. Johnson threads the story of his protagonists through the geopolitical minefield of the aughts. Johnson’s working assumption is that there is a world between the two battlefields—the world of the military itself. And by “military,” we mean less the concepts of honor, duty, and patriotism in the service of a political or nationalistic cause than the web of unofficial rules, coping mechanisms, gender affirmations, dirty jokes, homophobia, camaraderie, bravery, dumb luck, and more than occasional brutality that add up to survival in a world where the expression of compassion merely marks one out more clearly as an enemy.
It is a tale of two brothers, and as such makes us consider Cain and Abel, Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, and especially Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Just how far one brother’s love can go to save the other is at the heart of this tale’s mystery, but just how far a nation can go in pursuit of its global agenda lurks in the background. The sense we get of Achilles, the responsible older sibling whose sense of duty lands him in gravest danger from Kabul to Treme, is of overextension, of resources stretched beyond the breaking point. As biologically unrelated adopted African Americans, Achilles and his brother Troy are positioned to be the word on race and inequality in America, but Johnson wisely complicates matters. The parents are white and rural, Achilles is nearly as out of place in deepest New Orleans as he had been in country, and liberal guilt is as ripe for dissection as its political opposite. Above all, Johnson seems interested in the ways we function amid dysfunction, and in the costs of operating in moral quagmires, not just physical ones.
So the “brothers” in Achilles’ unit are his community as one might expect, but we also meet the compassionate (and corrupt?) storefront preacher, the old school police officer in an unbridled Big Easy department, and the lowly morgue worker whose plight somehow seems connected to the brothers’. By the time the narrative reaches August 2005 and the flood hits, Achilles’ battlefield experience serves him well, until it doesn’t. Johnson treats accumulated trauma as its own story, not as a pulpit. The novel asks how much compassion we can have for each other without resorting to sentimental—unearned, empty— gestures. In the wake of the Oscar Grant shooting, the Zimmerman verdict, the prison system, and countless everyday incidents that demonstrate an ongoing crisis of appearance, we would do well to somehow find out. A novel may not be able to provide the answers, but it challenges the conscience, not just regarding the everblue race issue but on what the nation has asked of all its young people in uniform. It is a testament to the power of Johnson’s eye for detail, ear for authentic speech, and uncompromising sense of place that this fiction does that work so well.
T. Geronimo Johnson, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts. Coffee House Press, 2012.