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Hold It 'Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo…
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Hold It 'Til It Hurts

by T. Geronimo Johnson

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T. Geronimo Johnson has written a modern epic that is "Homeric" in both its scope and theme. Johnson's stunning debut novel boasts a warrior hero named Achilles Conroy who has just returned from the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that has obviously left him scarred emotionally and mentally. His younger brother, Troy (more Homer), fought in the same US Army unit with Achilles, and has returned a decorated 'hero' by virtue of a daring, if foolhardy, rescue of a wounded comrade from a minefield. Achilles was there too, but only to protect his more impulsive sibling. Although equally brave, he received no medals.

The Conroy brothers return to their home in western Maryland just in time for the funeral of their father, killed in an automobile accident. Achilles and Troy are black; their adoptive parents are white. Immediately after the funeral, their mother presents them both with blue envelopes containing information about their birth parents. Achilles refuses to open his, but Troy takes his and disappears. Ever his brother's protector, Achilles goes looking for Troy, beginning a lengthy odyssey which takes him to New Orleans, where he stays with Wages, his former squad leader, and meets Ines, a wealthy, aristocratic woman who ministers to the homeless and drug addicts of the Big Easy. Ines looks white, but Achilles learns she is black, a confusing conundrum for him, since he has been trying to nail down his own racial identity all his life. While looking for Troy, Achilles is duped, beaten and robbed. His search for Troy then takes him to Atlanta just as Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. More dangerous escapades in Atlanta, where he encounters dark drug lords, junkies addicted to and dying from "crunch." He visits morgues and tenements. Ines joins him in Atlanta, but then they must go back to New Orleans, where they see firsthand the awful destruction from the storm, and wade into the mess to try to help the unfortunate poor who were abandoned by the authorities to sink or swim. Like Homer's Odysseus, Johnson's Achilles takes the long way home and in the course of his journey, the reader gets an often disturbing look into the darker side of combat-damaged soldiers. There are several scenes of graphic cruelty, violence and sex that are not for the faint of heart. The fact is, however, such scenes are necessary if one really wants to understand what war does to young men, how it can change them, and permanently damage them.

As far as the military experience is concerned - the camaraderie, the language, the intensity - Johnson has somehow managed to get it right, and I mean dead-center right. There is no mention in the author's bio about military service, so I have to assume the guy has just done his homework. The language, the sexual fantasies and allusions are all there - too authentic and graphic to quote here. But he also tells of the closeness, along with promises they make -

"... the promise to stay in touch, start a Myspace page, have an annual reunion. Achilles knew the desperate promises wouldn't hold ..."

Johnson also knows that having survived the crucible of combat can sometimes make life more precious than anything. When, at a funeral, people speak of going to 'a better place.'

"... no one said it to his face, as if they knew Achilles wasn't buying. Once you were shot at, there was no better place to be than alive."

There is much here about black and white, about racism, about cultural identity and how skin color and its varying hues and darknesses can make a difference. But in the end this is an examination of what it means to be a human being, and how environment, parentage and outside influences (especially violent ones like war, murder and natural disasters) can shape and mold a person, whether it be for good or bad.

If there are any flaws to be found in Johnson's modern version of the Odyssey, it is perhaps that the denouement goes on a bit too long. But I could be wrong in this. Because, considering all that Achilles has been through, the novel's final line is nothing short of perfect: "God, to be alive." ( )
  TimBazzett | Apr 16, 2013 |
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"A black veteran of the war in Afghanistan searches for his lost brother amid the chaos of Hurricane Katrina."--P. [4] of cover.

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