Hold It ’Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson

Monday, February 25, 2013

Hold It 'Til It Hurts

by T. Geronimo Johnson
Coffee House Press

With a name drawn from the cornerstone of Greek mythology comes a modern-day soldier named Achilles Holden Conroy, the young and encumbered protagonist of T. Geronimo Johnson’s first novel, Hold It ’Til It Hurts. The narrative begins in rural Maryland, travels to New Orleans and Atlanta, returns to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and concludes back where it started. We see Achilles as a cautious man, an imperiled US soldier who is lucky to be alive after two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Achilles is fiercely protective of his younger brother Troy, and joined the army reluctantly after Troy rushed to enlist after 9/11. He is guided by his own moral sense and burdened by a lifetime of wrestling with his identity as a black male. The boys are not related and were adopted separately, first Achilles, then Troy, by the same white couple. They grew up together in the family’s small home in a wooded section of Maryland. Achilles is unwilling to discuss his adoptive family with anyone. He identifies as black and is ashamed when reminded that he once talked like a white person.

Hold It ’Til It Hurts demands deep engagement and is a worthy addition to recent fiction about our twenty-first-century wars. Told in a close third person, the narrative begins after Achilles and Troy return from Afghanistan and come to Maryland for their adoptive father’s funeral. In an early tense scene, Achilles and his mother sit across the kitchen table from each other. Earlier she gave Troy a blue envelope marked in her husband’s handwriting, and now she hands Achilles his:

He handed it back. She pursed her lips and drew her shoulders out as she often did before a big announcement, but said nothing, for which he was grateful because he didn’t want to have this conversation again. He’d always insisted that he had no use for his adoption paperwork. She’d always insisted that he would regret never meeting his black blood relatives.

Troy is eager to find his birth parents, but Achilles is unwilling to open his envelope and learn the truth about his biological mother and father. He is adamant: “Even if tracking them down wasn’t treasonous, what good could come of crisscrossing the country to confirm that his biological mother was a junkie whore and his sperm-donor dad an ex-con?” His folks didn’t want him, Achilles believes, so why should he seek them out now? That would involve paperwork, which he feels is more like “pulling the pin out of a grenade.” Then the next day, Troy disappears mysteriously.

Troy’s disappearance feels too sudden, before the reader gets to know him well. The few words shared (flung?) between him and Achilles the day before in their compact bedroom offer a mere glimpse of Troy. This reader wanted to learn more about his relationship with Achilles, but Johnson reveals this later in the backstory, which he skillfully weaves into the novel’s main narrative.

Gradually, Achilles tells us more about Troy: his adoption on Achilles’s eighth birthday (Achilles wanted a puppy), the siblings’ childhood and teenage years, their army service together, and Troy’s heroic acts in the war, which earned him a bronze star. After Troy’s disappearance, Achilles describes Troy’s face to a police officer. The officer gives him a sketch, and Achilles wants to tell him, “You don’t need this. You’ll know him if you see him. You’ll feel his intensity, like a dog that fights to the death. You’ll know my brother by his heart, fearless and light, like a rock that floats.” Achilles remembers the men who served with his brother and him the same way, through instinctive bonds that persist far beyond active service. These soldiers have come home from war altered and abraded, hardened and haunted. Achilles recalls exchanges with his fellow soldiers in their own coded language (gritty, street-smart, biased) and the actions that kept his team together (grittier still). Johnson’s research on an active soldier’s life and the mindset of their shared experience is thorough. In one telling scene he writes, “No one had to explain what it meant when Humvees crawled back with black bags tied on the roof like kayaks. [Achilles] couldn’t imagine riding back to camp with his brother strapped overhead like excess baggage.”

Yet despite these bonds, Achilles remains aloof from his former comrades as he struggles to reconcile his wartime experience with his postwar life stateside. He seems incapable of living up to the heroic expectations of his name, doubt hovering at the periphery of his thoughts. If Troy is the besieged one, the embodiment of crises and daring, then Achilles flounders between courage and decisiveness: the older brother who happens to follow his younger brother.

Achilles’s first stop in search of Troy is New Orleans, after receiving a call from his former comrade Wages, who has settled there with his pregnant girlfriend. Wages insists that he has spotted Troy at St. Augustine Church in the Tremé District, before Troy slipped out of view. At Wages’s house, Achilles witnesses his former comrade beating his girlfriend and pulling her by the hair. Achilles is shocked that Wages can be so violent with her, yet still admires him for his valor in war:

This was Wages the starfish. . . . [Achilles] was . . . proud and as full of admiration as he had been when Wages scurried out to the middle of Bi’hah Road to drag Merriweather back to safety, ignoring the sharp, hot whistles in the air and the small craters trailing him. He was equally afraid that, once again, he could not have seen fit to do the same thing, that if it had been up to him, Merriweather would have lost more than a foot. Achilles was not valiant.

The search for Troy opens up even more old wounds over troubled identity. Achilles becomes romantically involved with Ines Delesseppes, a woman he meets at a storefront shelter in New Orleans. She is light-skinned enough to pass as white but identifies as a black woman. Her family has thrived for generations in a stately home a good distance from the Seventh Ward, and her mother addresses Achilles with polite contempt. This dismissal leaves Achilles speechless—it’s his first stinging encounter with old money and the upper class.

Throughout the novel, he is always on guard, pensive and searching, with a heart that wants to trust others easily but cannot. He calls himself a coward and is ashamed of having been raised by white parents. He believes he is an honest man but doesn’t know why he lies to Ines and omits facts, plagued as always by the devastation of war.

Johnson dredges these dark corners of Achilles’s paranoid, troubled mind and also shows us that Achilles understands right from wrong. When he discovers that Troy is caught up in the Atlanta drug scene, he knows he has to rescue him. When Wages beats his girlfriend, Achilles tries to stop him. He volunteers to help the needy and homeless (if only to seek out Troy) and joins a waterborne rescue team that tries to assist stranded residents during Katrina’s great flood. As Achilles searches for his lost brother in that lost city, Johnson gives us a stirring notion of water’s power to make people disappear: “The river would give nothing back; it would eat them all, inch by inch, winding around the city like a boa constrictor and pushing and pushing until everywhere it met only itself.”

And yet Achilles keeps searching for Troy, a brother besieged and seemingly in peril like that ancient city. As Achilles moves from city to city, his constant source of comfort is that he can return home to their mother in Maryland. Much as Thetis, the mother of his namesake from Greek mythology, tried to make her son immortal, Achilles Conroy’s own mother gave him the good sense and prudence to survive war and remain his brother’s keeper. And just as Thetis unwittingly left her Achilles with a fatal weakness by holding her infant son by the heels as she dipped him into the River Styx, so too our protagonist’s mother has left him with vulnerabilities that define him and keep him searching for an identity as elusive as his lost brother.

I share Achilles’s sorrow for Troy, the heroic soldier we meet only through the memories of his brother. Achilles is caught between black and white cultures, truth and lies, fellowship and revenge. His apprehension about his place in the world holds him back. This is a vivid and provocative novel. As it drew to a close, I understood why Achilles needs Ines and his adoptive mother to anchor him, why he fails to put together the puzzle of Troy’s disappearance, and why he never seeks the truth of his biological parents on his own. The character of Achilles is complex and fully developed, but he feels like a ghost. He’s unable to move on from his past but manages, with effort, to keep himself alive for the present.