FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

War, and Even Deeper Pains

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Consider the following scene in Hold It ‘Til It Hurts:

“When Achilles turned eight, he expected a golden Lab.  For years, his mother said, When you’re ten, but he didn’t expect to wait until two-whole hands old.  He knew the puppy was coming because his parents described his gift as Warm, friendly, and tireless.  His friends were going to be jealous.  His parents left early that Saturday morning, leaving Achilles with Mrs. Bear, the babysitter who let him take showers.  They were due back well before 6:30 p.m., when the party was set to begin.  At 5:30, as instructed, Achilles took his cake out of the refrigerator and placed it on the coffee table in the living room, where the paneled walls were festooned with streamers, balloons, and his name in winking, glittering gold letters.  He sat on Mrs. Bear’s welcoming lap and watched Romper Room until 6:15, when the first guests arrived.  The last guest was there at 6:30.”

But his parents do not return home with the dog and the hours stretch on and on.  He eats his birthday cake, the guests leave, and he eventually falls asleep.  It isn’t until almost midnight that his parents wake him up and yell “Surprise!” followed almost immediately by “This is Troy.” But Troy isn’t a Lab; he’s another boy, two years younger than Achilles.  Troy is just as confused as Achilles.  The next morning he asks Achilles, “How long they going to let us stay here?”

The incident is central to T. Geronimo Johnson’s powerful debut novel, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, and you might conclude that the two boys (not foster children, but adopted) will never be friends, but the opposite is true.  Both boys are African-Americans; their adoptive parents are white.  The boys bond so tightly that soon they are inseparable, especially because of the protective stance Achilles has toward his younger brother.  When Troy enlists in the army after graduation, Achilles does the same—immediately, though he’s already been out of school two years.  Their father tells them, “Don’t one of you come back alone.” When Troy engages in risky actions in Afghanistan (which they call Goddamnistan), Achilles watches over him and makes certain that both young men return safely to their home in Maryland after two years of combat.

It’s after their military experience that complications arise.  Troy has always wanted to know the identity of his birth parents.  Achilles couldn’t care less.  When the two return home together, they learn that their father has suddenly died in an automobile accident.  The funeral is immediately.  Afterwards, their mother gives them each a sealed blue envelope, containing the information about their adoptions, their birth parents.  Then, two days later, Troy disappears, leaving no information about his whereabouts.  Achilles assumes that he has gone in search of his birth parents. What follows is Achilles’ own journey—an arduous search for his brother’s whereabouts, as dangerous as anything that ever happened to him in Afghanistan.

The story which I have summarized is not related in chronological order.  The novel begins with the brothers returning home from military combat.  Then it loops back and forth in time, while simultaneously moving ahead as Johnson narrates Achilles’ attempts to track down his brother once he learns (from one of his military brothers) that Troy has been sited in New Orleans. That shift in venue—from Maryland to Louisiana and, eventually, to Atlanta—introduces several new characters and continued discussions of racial issues in the United States.  The woman Achilles falls in love with, though white in appearance, is African-American.  She believes that white people have no business adopting black children, an on-going issue throughout the novel, though Achilles doesn’t see things the same way. The difference creates tension between the two of them, particularly because Achilles has not been honest with Inez, the woman, about his own childhood, his brother, and what happened to them in Afghanistan.

T. Geronimo Johnson’s  Hold It ‘Til It Hurts is a profound discussion about race in the United States, no more wrenching in its context than the moment when Hurricane Katrina levels much of New Orleans.  During that debacle exacerbated by the Bush administration, Achilles joins the military rescue squads to try to save people and reestablish order.  “He had never felt this anxious in Goddamnistan….  Achilles had felt like the waters would never recede, would never concede,” and most of the victims, most of the bodies he pulls out of the water are poor and black.

Some of the plot is confusing and the novel goes on longer than necessary, but by the end, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts is more about love and redemption than race or war.  The bond that connects Achilles to his brother, Troy, is magnificently drawn, the depth of emotion unforgettable.  And the surprises in the plotting herald the beginning of an impressive literary career.

T. Geronimo Johnson: Hold It ‘Til It Hurts

Coffee House Press, 340 pp., $15.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail