Holy moley, people, is this ever an unsettling, thought-provoking read. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.
The premise is that Daron Davenport, from the small town of Braggsville, GA, finds himself entering UC-Berkeley where he falls in with a ragtag group of college students: a black boy from a Chicago prep school, a Malaysian boy who wants to be a comedian and isn't afraid of hot-button topics, and a blond girl from Iowa who claims to be 1/8 Native American. The girl in particular is very politically correct and chomping at the bit to fix all of society's ills. So when she finds out that Daron's southern town still holds Civil War re-enactments, she becomes outraged, and ends up convincing this little group to stage a fake lynching during the re-enactment. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, and I can't tell you, because that would be spoilerville. But what I can say is that it's been a while since I've read a book that's such a roller coaster. Every time I thought I knew where the author was heading, he'd veer off in another direction, and it would make perfect sense.
I'm betting that not everyone will like this book. The writing style changes throughout. It starts with a snarky, almost over-the-top look at life at oh-so-PC Berkeley, with characters that at first are almost stereotypes. There's a great deal of humor in the first third of the book. But as the situation deteriorates, the tone changes, and there's at times an undercurrent of anger, and at other times almost a sense of astonishment. It mirrors what's happening with Daron, who's learning a lot more about himself, his family, his community, and his friends than he ever expected to.
The author, T. Geronimo Johnson, definitely has a way with words:
"A single slice of ham fainted across the wax paper like a Southern belle in sight of a chaise lounge."
"At moments he felt the words pressing against his throat like sprinters neatly arranged at the starting block waiting only for him to fire the pistol. And when he didn't they would stand, stretch their legs, and cloud about in frustration as his thoughts went rogue, nebular. Again he would gather them together, line them up, but still couldn't even draw the starter, let alone fire it."
The structure Johnson has created is perfect, in that his college kids act as a perfect metaphor for privileged white people, even when they're not all privileged themselves. It may have been a while since I attended college, but I easily recognize the smug, "I can change the world, you moron" attitude that some of these characters have. And how is that not unlike privileged white people rolling their eyes at the very idea of white privilege?
There were some minor things that annoyed me. No quotation marks, ugh. And there's a side plot point about Daron's name being spelled D'Aron, that's supposed to be funny and provocative, but half the time Johnson doesn't even bother with the apostrophe, and it doesn't add much to the story.
But those are minor things. Overall, this is thought-provoking, uncomfortable, and so worth the ride.