Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to BraggsvilleSo. This book. It, um, it exists? And is weird. Super weird. The end. Recommendation: Weird.

Seriously, though. I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I got into this book. The jacket copy promised me four Berkeley (sorry, Cal) students staging a “performative intervention” at a Civil War reenactment in BFE Georgia, and it delivered. It promised me satire and skewering and weird, and ohhhh it delivered. But it did not tell me what I was getting into.

So, okay, here are the parts I can tell you without spoilers. The protagonist is a white kid called D’aron from BFE Georgia who gets into UC Berkeley and proceeds to become exactly the kind of pedantic, overzealous, idealistic nerd you’d expect a sheltered eighteen-year-old away from home for the first time to become. Read: sooooooo pedantic. Daron (who drops the apostrophe at college) quickly makes friends with a white chick from Iowa, a black dude from Chicago, and a politically incorrect Asian dude from San Francisco, and as one thing leads to another they end up planning the aforementioned intervention, which involved dressing up as slaveowners and a hanged slave and seeing what reactions they get out of the local Georgia folk.

That in itself would be a fascinating book. Over-educated kids do something pretty stupid, maybe teach rural folks a lesson but probably learn more of a lesson themselves about compassion for their fellow man or whatever.

But then, things go juuuuust a little bit wrong at the reenactment/intervention and suddenly Daron is forced to reevaluate pretty much everything that has ever happened to him, and things get super duper weird from there on out.

The book ends up being a really strange and interesting look into race relations and inbred prejudice and the way people value and validate the things they believe in and how what one group thinks is totally normal is absolutely unfathomable to another group, whether we’re talking Civil War reenactments or Instagram hashtags. And the author doesn’t focus on just black vs. white or urban vs. rural or college-educated vs. trade-educated or West Coast vs. The South or managers vs. wage-earners, but makes a case for every side in every war of stereotypes he could apparently fit into this book. It is an impressive feat.

But be warned — the narrative is just as overzealous and pedantic as D’aron himself, which makes a lot of sense and also makes it at times incredibly difficult to read. Think Ted Mosby in full “Uh, I believe it’s pronounced, ‘cham-uh-lee-un'” mode and then add ten. Or, for you literary types, it’s a lot like Colson Whitehead‘s quasi-stream-of-consciousness-with-lots-of-big-words style or really a lot like that one Jonathan Franzen essay I read where he rags on people who don’t want to read works that are hard. I mean, there’s literally a chapter written as a research paper. If you can get through the writing, there’s a great book inside it, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing just go ahead and skip this one. Franzen will judge you; I won’t.

Recommendation: For super-nerds who cringe when they remember their college pedantry and people who need a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone thinks like an academic.

Rating: 8/10

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilI chose this book for my book club not because I should have read it a long time ago but because I think everyone else who lives in the South has read it and I need to catch up on my Southern literature, even that written by a Yank.

This book was a little weird to read; like In Cold Blood before it this book is a sort of non-fiction novel where most of the facts are true but Berendt takes some liberties to protect the innocent and make the story sound better when needed, which at least he acknowledges up front unlike a certain Mr. Capote.

So all this stuff happens and it’s absolutely bonkers crazypants and I am like, I really hope this is all creative license, but there is so much of it that a lot of it must be true…

Anyway, what happens is John Berendt goes down to Georgia and stays awhile and makes friends with all the people in Savannah, rich and poor and middle class and black and white (which is still a HUGE distinction in 1980s Savannah), which is pretty easy because he’s clearly told everyone he’s planning to write a book, what with all the times he writes about people telling him to include such-and-such in his book. So meta.

And so we learn a lot of the gossip of Savannah, especially about the big shots and how they all secretly hate each other (I mean, of course they do) and also about this weird dude who lives in a big house and has a tantrum-throwing hired kid living and working with him and sometimes flies a Nazi flag to annoy film crews and possibly inadvertently his Jewish neighbors.

The focus on this weird dude makes more sense when he kills the hired kid and is put on trial, with said trial taking up the last half of the book. The whole thing is nuts — the dude pleads self-defense, but it’s pretty obvious that he did some staging of the scene after the fact, but then also it turns out that police did a grand job bungling the whole case, including waltzing all around the murder site before all the pictures were taken, and also also the prosecutor is an idiot and the trial gets retried a bunch of times before a decision is made that sticks.

The whole book is nuts, but it makes a lot of things about living in the South make more sense and has a lot of interesting things to say about race and class and especially gentrification, so it’s actually a pretty useful read for new Southerners as well as a page-turning story. It also makes me want to visit Savannah again with an eye to all of this insanity, so I’m sure the Savannah tourism board loves it.

Recommendation: For those who like bonkers stories that also happen to be mostly true.

Rating: 8/10