(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
Welcome to Braggsville
By T. Geronimo Johnson
William Morris / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
At first I had a hard time understanding why T. Geronimo Johnson's recent second novel, Welcome to Braggsville, ended up as a surprise nominee this year for the prestigious National Book Award; I mean, sure, it's written in this showy language deliberately designed to call attention to itself, which is like catnip to academic award committees, but at its heart it's not much more than a genteel coming-of-age novel, about a nice kid from a small Georgia town who ends up going to college in Berkeley and befriending a group of politically correct nerds, who all humorously decide one day to road-trip to our hero's hometown and stage a protest when they find out that the town still holds a Civil War re-enactment every year. Ah, but then I got about halfway through and realized why it's gotten so much attention -- because their humorous protest goes horribly wrong, sparking a riot among the thousands of proud Southerners in attendance, and in the melee one of the kids doing the protesting (who at the time was being fake-lynched from a tree using a stage harness from the college's theater department) ends up actually getting choked to death, never becoming clear in the chaos whether it was the fault of the rioters or whether the undergraduate protesters simply set up the harness wrong. This turns the entire thing into a Ferguson-style national flashpoint for an angry confrontation about race; and it's this bigger, more sweeping scope that has garnered the book so much attention.
Now, that said, if you don't like novels by MFA holders who want to remind you on every page that they hold an MFA, you need to steer far clear of this particular book -- Johnson has never met a sentence he couldn't double in length and complexity, turning essentially a 150-page Young Adult novel into a 375-page academic darling -- although if you do like such books, there's a lot to love in this one, a novel solidly grounded in concrete character examination but that holds several plot twists to keep things interesting. A book best treated as a genre novel, only the genre being "Books for NPR Fans," your enjoyment of the former will directly relate to your enjoyment of the latter, and this should be kept in mind when deciding whether to pick up a copy yourself.
Out of 10: 8.3, or 9.3 for NPR fans