T. Geronimo Johnson borrows ancient plot devices to tell an urgently contemporary story of the U.S. soldier coming home.
Pity the poor novelists their narcissism, catastrophic imaginations, crippling nostalgia and chewed-up fingernails, their remainder notices and well-meaning relatives ("How's the book going?"), their weak eyes and exhausted livers, but perhaps pity them most of all because this whole process, from idea germ to pub date, takes so very, very long. Spike Lee was able to premiere his documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" a mere 12 months after Hurricane Katrina. Some of the poems in Natasha Trethewey's "Beyond Katrina" came out as early as 2006. But now, a full seven years since the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, Minneapolis' Coffee House Press is publishing T. Geronimo Johnson's debut novel, "Hold It 'Til It Hurts," set in his hometown of New Orleans amid the chaos of that terrible time.
The flood narrative is, of course, as old as stories come, and Johnson has tacked on another reliable standby: the quest for a missing person, a plot device that goes back through Chandler to Oedipus and beyond. Johnson's hero with the heroic name, Achilles Conroy, is a black veteran of the war in Afghanistan (the book calls it Goddamnistan), with the task of finding his little brother, Troy, who was last seen far from home, in a rough part of New Orleans.
Like most quest narratives, "Hold It" is more interested in the stick than the carrot. Achilles' search for his brother is mostly an excuse to take the reader on a guided tour of New Orleans' diners, churches, morgues, homeless shelters, housing projects and tourist traps. Along the way, he falls in love, and huge chunks of pages go by without even a mention of Troy. No wonder: His new girlfriend is rich, beautiful, articulate, infinitely patient, runs her own nonprofit and has a heart as big as the Hindenburg: "Old men saw her and proffered toothless smiles, babies stopped crying." With only two exceptions (my mother, my wife), women this perfect don't exist outside literature, and she seems less like an actual person and more like a device to usher our hero toward manhood and help him learn valuable life lessons. But that's OK. Achilles deserves a little sugar.
After active duty, civilian life is "a sudden and violent deceleration, like hitting the ground without a chute." Johnson is bringing the news here, rendering beautifully the pleasures (silverware in drawers instead of bins) and pitfalls (guilty liberals at the bar) facing soldiers at home. A Re-entry Readjustment Workshop tells Achilles to "walk away" before becoming angry enough to strike and "act don't react," essentially asking him to unlearn everything that had kept him alive in Afghanistan. Not a veteran himself, Johnson tells this story with what must be a tremendously empathic imagination, one that will serve him well in all his books to come.
Matt Burgess is the author of "Dogfight, a Love Story." He teaches creative writing at Macalester College.