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: firstname.lastname@example.org.