As if the psychological fallout of war wasn’t a poignant enough trope (namely Afghanistan), Hold It ‘Til It Hurts (Coffee House Press) takes on the intricate delicacies of identity, family, and the socio-economic structures - especially race - that determine both our place and understanding in the world.
Although these ever-dense and disconcerting themes are well-trod and often seek to transcend a particular time and place, T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel feels decidedly here and now, designed to capture both our modern epoch and a very personal journey.
The book opens with a blow, a funeral. Achilles Conroy has just come home from a tour of Afghanistan with his brother Troy. Amid the wan smiles, streamers and balloons of a small-town homecoming, they also discover their father has died in a car accident.
Upon Achilles’ and Troy’s return, their mother - who is both devoted and mildly disturbed (she’s taken to compulsively wearing a backpack in preparation for “training”) - hands them an envelope containing the identity of their biological family.
Raised by two white parents, Achilles and Troy are both black - though Troy much lighter - and have spent their youth wrestling with their parents’ attempts at negating their race entirely:
“Your skin color doesn’t matter, and never let anyone tell you otherwise. You could just as well be purple...purple pie people eaters.” Their father rubbed their heads and explained that anyone who said race mattered was ignorant. But his father didn’t understand that Achilles didn’t start the fights, though he was always to blame for them.... He’d never considered how hard they worked to protect him from the world...Ines thought it hard for kids. It wasn’t. How difficult, though, it must have been for his father, who knew he wasn’t a purple pie eater. Was it like a commander sending his troops to unknown fate?
Much of Achilles’ observations and thoughts are peered at and pondered through the lens of war; his field of vision has both narrowed and deepened, his newfound perceptions both cloudy and crystalline.
They would surely think him mad, but he’d missed it all - the sound of unseen cars on wet roads, burning leaves in the fall, sleeping late, his own bed, familiar faces at every corner, silverware in a drawer instead of a bin. Before his eyes though, every image he’d encountered in detail over the last few weeks, those shimmering fantasies he’d counted in place of sleep, faded like apparitions, none being as he remembered.
Like so many soldiers before him, Achilles finds himself missing the strange sand-choked world he’s left behind; the high-stakes existence riddled with equal parts brother-ship and brutality has been left behind and in its wake is a life he can’t return to.
Achilles and Troy - through their parents’ insistence - have fostered a particularly intense relationship. Early on Achilles was expected to be Troy’s keeper, ironically tending to someone who seems - from birth - braver, stronger, more confident, charming and handsome.
Two days after their return and just one day after their father’s funeral, Troy disappears, leaving Achilles, yet again, with the responsibility of fetching him back.
Achilles wasn’t surprised by the desertion. When they were kids, Troy, who had lighter skin than Achilles, would cut pictures of celebrities out magazines...and say, “Doesn’t this look like me?”...Nonetheless, Achilles couldn’t help but feel a burn in his chest, an unspeakable fear that threatened to shake his bowels loose every time he stumbled over what Troy left behind…
Achilles sets out on a kind of odyssey, an epic quest to find his brother who has fled to New Orleans; along the way he meets Ines, another racial conundrum with whom he falls deeply in love with.
Ines, a devoted white volunteer and community organizer among the poor black contingency of New Orleans, was raised locally in old-money opulence, adding another gleaming and troubling facet to her sense of self. She has committed her life to helping others, but then again, has no need for money or to work.
At the sound of her voice, curtains parted and venetian blinds ruffled. First singly, then in twos, people poured out, flocking to her like sparrows to St. Francis. They saw her dreads, the Kente cloth, the brilliant yellow head wrap like a torch. They saw her clear bottomless eyes and knew they could talk to her.
She casts a loving, lustful, and confusing spell over Achilles, equal parts whore, goddess, and savior.
Johnson never shies away from sex; in fact it’s fetishized quite a bit throughout the novel, exploring the power of flesh to act as a kind of alchemy, of redemption.
The light played on her body, all curves and arcs, gentle saucers and bowls, the flattening of a thigh where it met the bed, the hollow of a hip. Ines glowed like she was carved out of moonlight...She was a land he wanted to survey, to settle, to colonize. Were there shortcuts? A tickle at the diamond of the neck, a nibble of the toe, a run of licked thumb down the spine until it crashes into the warm embrace of her ass. She was flesh perfectly punctuated, all commas and questions.
As Achilles darts from morgue to morgue, from homeless line to crack house desperate to find Troy, Hurricane Katrina sweeps through New Orleans, decimating the city, but also drawing a sharp divide between black and white and the value of human life connoted by color.
Through his journey Achilles confronts the fragility of life and the tender binds that hold us together; they are as easy to snap as they are to safeguard.
A third of it broken off, the edges crumbled, the frosting balloons flattened, his name smeared, the cake was in shambles...Thirteen years later, he will stand before the minaret that remained as the last monument to a bombed-out mosque, remember this moment, and realize that he had always been puzzled that it was so easy to destroy things and so hard to fix them, that even the biggest building could crumble like cake.
While Johnson’s language is consistently stark, straight-forward, and deceptively simple, it manages to deftly capture Achilles - a decided anti-hero - as well as the modern American psyche and all the conflicts that go with it.
Like his Grecian namesake, Achilles is as fierce as he is frail, riddled with diverging alliances and misplaced loyalties, hungry for victory, but unsure how to achieve it, or what victory even means.
The reader is left with a resounding hope despite it all. We’re reminded that even in the face of hate, confusion, sorrow and loss - sometimes so daunting it feels best to give up and lie down - that there is a current, an unknowable trust, that life is best lived.
Feeling the pounding in her chest, a drum that beat so much faster and stronger than his...he willed and prayed for his own heart to catch up. God, to be alive.
T. Geronimo Johnson was born in New Orleans. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Best New American Voices, Indiana Review, LA Review, and Illuminations, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Johnson teaches writing at University of California–Berkeley. Hold It ’Til It Hurts is his first book.
McGrath Tandy is a writer living in San Francisco, working as an editor for an interior design trade publication. She holds a Master’s in 20th Century Literature from Brooklyn College (wildly useful) and is currently working on a memoir.