What did I just read?!
Welcome to Braggsville was such a challenging book for me, in both subject matter and style. Every time I thought I'd figured out who Johnson was satirizing—Confederate flag-waving Southerners, hyper-liberal yet clueless Berkeley professors, young and dangerously naïve narrator D'aron and his friends—I'd turn a page and he'd expose yet another group's flaws and foibles. If everyone is a “bad guy”—or at least complicit in some way—who are the good guys in this story? I wondered.
The answer I finally settled upon: there aren't any. And that's why I think this book is one of the most painfully honest about race relations in America that I've ever encountered.
D'aron Davenport, a white kid from Braggsville, Georgia, population 712, escapes the rigid confines of his hometown for the vibrant campus of UC Berkeley. His two very different worlds collide with a bang when he and three friends decide to stage a “performative intervention” at Braggsville's annual Civil War reenactment. The idealistic but misguided co-eds think they'll be confronting racism and forcing the town's residents to reconsider an outdated ritual, but their stunt goes horribly wrong.
The rest of the book consists of D'aron and his friends struggling to make sense of what happened and dealing with their own culpability. Their inner reflections and conversations with others make for some pretty uncomfortable reading—the irony is so thickly layered, it's sometimes hard to know who, if anyone, can be taken seriously. The style Johnson has chosen doesn't help clarify things, either. He flits at will from one character's perspective to another, switches from first to second person and back again like water sloshing in the bottom of a boat. I could tell I was missing so many tiny details and passing references; all I could do was keep my feet planted and hope some of it would soak up into my socks and maybe someday make it to my brain.
It's a hell of a challenge, but Welcome to Braggsville is all the more important for it. I'm glad I stretched myself and didn't give up. Now, though, I think I've earned a light and fluffy read or ten.