Adopted brothers Achilles and Troy return from active duty in Afghanistan to their parents’ home in Washington, DC. They walk through the front door, expecting to be surprised by their family. And the family is gathered — but for the wake of their father, who they learn died in a car crash with the co-worker he was dating. “Oh, didn’t I mention he moved out?” mom says, handing each son his adoption papers before imploring them to seek out their birth families. Surprise! Welcome home.
T. Geronimo Johnson doesn’t shy away from writing about complicated, emotionally charged subjects. He drops you unceremoniously into the overwhelming circumstances that war vets in this country face upon reentry to regular life, and continues to ratchet up the stakes in his debut novel, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, which he’ll discuss at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on Friday, September 14. “I really tried hard not to turn away from things that are hard to deal with, hard to process, emotionally or socially uncomfortable,” said the poet and UC Berkeley professor of comparative literature.
Issue one: Achilles and Troy are both black, and their adopted parents are white. So when their mother hands them their adoption papers, it sends the brothers, who always wanted to believe they were born from the same kin, into a tailspin. Troy immediately takes off for New Orleans, presumably to search for his birth family, and big brother Achilles tries to find him. There’s also the issue of Achilles negotiating his identity. Because he was raised in a middle-class, mostly white suburb, and had educational and economic advantages, “Achilles doesn’t think of himself as black; he has race shame,” Johnson said. And now he’s deep in the heart of New Orleans, surrounded by and seeking help from black people who are very much struggling to get by. Searching morgues for bodies that could be Troy, Achilles must come to terms with who he is and how he was raised, with the fact that he might never see his brother again, and with the ghosts of the dead they left behind on the battlefield. And then there are the old Civil War-era haunts surrounding Achilles’ new love interest, a very light-skinned black woman from very old New Orleans slave-owning money. “It’s very much about race; it’s huge,” Johnson said. “It’s about class and about war, and it’s also about what it means to try to integrate into society after the highest moral authority in the land has spent millions to train you to go off and kill people. And then you come back home and you are reintegrated physically, but where are you emotionally, mentally?” In the case of Achilles and Troy, lost in New Orleans, the triumvirate of issues is complete when Hurricane Katrina hits and even more hell breaks loose.
This is not a retelling of The Iliad, despite heroes Achilles and Troy and their odyssey. But the novel is an epic in its own right, spanning continents, generations, and social and moral issues. In the end it’s about family: the one you’re born into; the family you create throughout your lifetime; and the larger family of human beings all living in the same crazy world. 7 p.m., free. 510-653-9965 or DieselBookstore.com