The first chapter of Welcome to Braggsville seethes with the barely-restrained energy of a young man standing on the threshold of his own life. D'Aron Davenport rattles off his many nicknames as a way of piecing together a childhood spent as a white, working class know-it-all in the quirky depths of the Georgian South. In the small town of Braggsville, where locals claim "every wrong turn is a dead end," D'Aron has many claims to fame but no real identity. It's not until a scholarship lands him at UC Berkeley—or Berzerkely, as he discovers the community around Cal is known—that he begins to cobble together selfhood as a defense against what his liberal-guilt-ridden professors deem a tendency toward essentialism (D'Aron is the Southern Kid in class, and little else).
Shell-shocked and slacking on his studies, D'Aron forms an unlikely alliance with three Cal classmates: a girl from Iowa who claims to be Native American and takes herself far too seriously; a thoughtful black kid from inner city Chicago; and a flamboyant teen from San Francisco, who claims to be the "next Lenny Bruce Lee, Kung Fu Comedian." The hapless group, which dubs itself the "4 Little Indians," enrolls in "American History X, Y and Z: Alternative Perspectives," a class that has discussion circles rather than curriculum. D'Aron lets slip one day that his hometown of Braggsville hosts a Civil War reenactment every year called "Patriot Days," and the 4 Little Indians decide it is their duty to teach D'Aron's backward friends, family, and neighbors a lesson. Via "performative intervention," they scheme to storm the small Southern town, in what they imagine will be an eye-opening and boundary-smashing display—and which, unsurprisingly, ends up an unmitigated disaster.
What's interesting here is the level of absurdity to which Johnson is willing to take his characters, on both sides of the red/blue cultural divide. On one hand, the smug entitlement of the Berzerkly intelligentsia; on the other, the militant anti-intellectual rednecks of the Deep South. Johnson is incredibly even-handed in his treatment of both factions—despite his own elite education (he holds an MA from UC Berkeley, and an MFA from Iowa Writer's Workshop, which most regard as the best creative writing program in the country). The risk Johnson takes here is by focusing so intensely on the extremes—which are admittedly terrific fodder for the comedic mastery he wields—those of us that exist somewhere in between are left with little to relate to. However, for the majority of his readers, Johnson will earn enthusiastic fans for the plucky, whip-smart narrative, and the best display of identify politics in action that we've seen since Tom Wolfe. It's probably one of the most entertaining books (thoroughly enjoyable, despite the heavy handed irony) that I've read this year.
Keep an eye out around town for Geronimo (what a name!): He's been hired to teach in the OSU-Cascades Low Residency MFA program this summer.