Hold It 'Til It Hurts

Hold It 'Til It Hurts

by T. Geronimo Johnson

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Hold It 'Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson

Finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award

"The magnificence of Hold It 'Til It Hurts is not only in the prose and the story but also in the book's great big beating heart. These complex and compelling characters and the wizardry of Johnson's storytelling will dazzle and move you from first page to last. Novels don't teach us how to live but Hold It 'Til It Hurts will make you hush and wonder."--Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead

"This rich and sophisticated first novel brings together pleasures rarely found in one book: Hold It 'Til It Hurts is a novel about war that goes in search of passionate love, a dreamy thriller, a sprawling mystery, a classical quest for a lost brother in which the shadowy quarry is clearly the seeker’s own self, and a meditation on family and racial identity that makes its forerunners in American fiction look innocent by comparison."--Jaimy Gordon, National Book Award winner for Lord of Misrule

When Achilles Conroy and his brother Troy return from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, their white mother presents them with the key to their past: envelopes containing details about their respective birth parents. After Troy disappears, Achilles--always his brother’s keeper--embarks on a harrowing journey in search of Troy, an experience that will change him forever.

Heartbreaking, intimate, and at times disturbing, Hold It ’Til It Hurts is a modern-day odyssey through war, adventure, disaster, and love, and explores how people who do not define themselves by race make sense of a world that does.

T. Geronimo Johnson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Best New American Voices, Indiana Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Illuminations, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Johnson teaches writing at the University of California-Berkeley. Hold It 'Til It Hurts is his first book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566893107
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 08/09/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 1,104,938
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

T. Geronimo Johnson was born in New Orleans. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Best New American Voices, Indiana Review, LA Review, and Illuminations, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Johnson currently teaches writing at University of California-Berkeley. Hold It 'Til It Hurts is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 1

That evening after his father’s funeral, once the last mourner bid solemn farewell and vanished into the foggy grove separating his childhood home from the nearest neighbor, Achilles’ mother summoned him into the kitchen, the only room free of streamers and balloons, and handed him a big blue envelope that bore no return address or postmark, only his name spelled out in his father’s heavy-footed block print. They sat opposite each other at the small oak table, bare save for the mail stacked in the shadow of an empty chair, far beyond reach of the day’s last flaxen rays sneaking through the vertical blinds and fanning across the tabletop in fat sandy bands the color of his father’s coffin. 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 always insisted that he had no use for his adoption paperwork. She always insisted that he would regret never meeting his black blood relatives.

“None of us is here forever,” she said as if that statement alone explained everything. Her tone had been equally matter-of-fact when relating the circumstances surrounding his father’s death: killed instantly in a head-on collision while giving an employee a ride home. Even in moments such as these, his mother was steely as a sergeant, beyond surprise, never even commenting on why his father had been halfway across the state, driving an employee home at midnight on a Saturday. She’d scowled during the eulogy, and looked again on the verge of anger. When Achilles didn’t respond, she continued, “I don’t want you to regret leaving this undone.”

He didn’t like the idea of being undone, but didn’t see how crawling back to someone would make him done. And regret? Regret? He didn’t think so. Having been to D. C. and seen how they lived, he couldn’t care less about his birth parents. 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? And, other than the occasional elementary school joke because he’d been short, black, and chubby while his parents were tall, white, and thin, race had never been an issue in his neighborhood or his school. “Burn it.”

He’d hoped she would finally accept his decision, feel cheered by his fidelity, but she actually cringed. Her lips pulled tight, her head dropped a notch, and her gaze softened as her expression passed from reserved and proud to stricken and mournful and then, for the first time since he’d arrived home, to pained. Achilles moved his seat closer to her and clasped her hands in apology, though he didn’t know what for. Why wasn’t she relieved and thankful for his loyalty? Why should he track down people who obviously didn’t want him? Achilles didn’t grovel.

“I just don’t want it, or need it,” he said. Accepting that paperwork was like pulling the pin out of a grenade.

“Think about it...”

Achilles excused himself, turning on the light as he left. He passed his brother in the hall and warned him away from the kitchen. Troy shrugged, offering his usual response to the topic, “Fuck it!”

Yet, barely fifteen minutes later, Troy strode into their bedroom holding a big blue envelope. Their parents’ house was a two-bedroom ranch, so the brothers had shared the same room since Achilles’ eighth birthday, when his parents first brought Troy--then six years old--home. Refusing to budge, Achilles sat on the edge of his bed as Troy stepped over him and ducked into the closet, tucking the envelope away behind the loose baseboard, where they’d secreted their prized Matchbox cars, the shiniest samples of mica and quartz, and the girlie magazines traded for pilfered cigarettes.

Troy avoided Achilles’ eyes as he ducked out of the closet and stepped over Achilles to get back to his bed, which was so close to Achilles’ own bed that they couldn’t sit facing each other without their knees touching. Troy flopped down and the mattress sunk to the floor with a thump. In that room, they were like Gulliver in their favorite bedtime story. After reading to them, their mom coaxed them to sleep by promising that dreams were real, and in them they could do anything, even fly, and they could be anyone, princes or kings or warriors or magicians, or ghost busters as Troy demanded one night; they could make up imaginary villages, design spaceships and castles, construct entire cities--tiny towns, she called them--secret places they always carried with them. With he and Troy, and the blue envelope in the room, it felt literally like a tiny town.

“Ass.” asked Achilles.

“She wants us to have it,” said Troy.

“You believe that?” asked Achilles.

Troy busied himself shuffling the DD14s--discharge papers--and other forms scattered on his desk, which only came up to his knees. He was a giant in the funhouse, his arms thicker than the desk legs. “It’s like money. Just because you don’t need it right now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it. In Goddamnit-stan, did you ever turn down your biscuit because you didn’t need the money?”

Achilles shook his head. That was typical Troy, defending bullshit decisions with bullshit excuses. Couldn’t he wait another week, a day even? It was a breech, a leak, inviting a ghost into the family. And biscuit? Troy sounded stupid using slang. “We have direct deposit.”

“What! You don’t know everything,” said Troy. “Just because you take it doesn’t mean you’ll spend it. You never know when you might need it. You wouldn’t dump all your rations just because you’re full. Besides, give her a break. Be responsible for your own shit.” He was fidgeting now, picking at the calluses on his palm as he did whenever someone demanded to see his aces. Troy pointed around the room, his arm long enough to reach most of his possessions from where he sat: the children’s books and textbooks, action figures, Black Sabbath and Public Enemy posters, roller skates; the rucksack, desert boots, BDUs, flak jacket. “This is my home. BioPs? Fuck-em eight ways!”

But the next morning, only two days after they returned from active duty, and only one day after their father’s funeral, Troy was gone.


He should have stopped him. Achilles had heard his brother get up, and thought he was going for a jog. When alone, they jogged. When together, they ran, and usually ended racing, as had happened the first day back as they neared home with Achilles’ shorter strides nearly doubled to keep pace with Troy’s long legs, kicking the air, their noses pushing into the wind, chest-to-chest and neck-to-neck until Troy stole a strong lead by nodding towards a leggy brunette with a pageboy and puffing, “Janice,” sending Achilles ducking behind a car until he could confirm there were no dolphins tattooed on the ankles or hearts behind the knees, by which time Troy had such a lead that Achilles didn’t catch up until he was already crunching up the gravel drive. Achilles wasn’t trying to avoid Janice in particular, he just didn’t want to see anyone else he knew until the funeral, where circumstances would demand brief condolences, and he wouldn’t be expected to endure stories about a father whom everyone suddenly seemed to know better than he, or to suffer such pity he would have thought himself dead.

All the while they were growing up, their father’s motto was: Be the ones to beat. So they had been competitive, especially with each other. But when Troy distracted him on that run, Achilles knew something new was at stake, something he didn’t want to win, but he couldn’t run without trying to win. So as Troy dressed the morning after the funeral, Achilles remained motionless, holding his breath for the long moment when the room grew still and he felt Troy standing above him deciding whether to call Achilles’ bluff of slumber and kick the bed, the floor squeaking as Troy shifted his weight from leg to leg, grinding the grit underfoot, before at last creeping out.

There wasn’t a single store within walking distance of the subdivisions that had sprung up around his parents’ house over the years, so when he heard Troy’s old beetle coasting down the gravel drive, Achilles thought Troy was going for cigarettes. When he wasn’t back at noon, Achilles assumed he was out sniffing around, or maybe up in Chambersburg, where Mrs. Bowler lived. Troy thought that was still secret, but word spread when someone slept with his high school algebra teacher.

Later that afternoon, Achilles discovered that Troy’s blue envelope was gone, as were Troy’s watch, locket, and pistols. He searched behind the baseboard in the closet, and another cubbyhole where Troy hid food as a candy, pot as a teenager, money as an adult, and, most recently, the photos from their tour. Empty. On a whim he checked the Teddy Ruxpin cassette player, where Troy used to leave notes in which he’d written what he couldn’t say. Empty.

Achilles wasn’t surprised by the desertion. When they were kids, Troy, who had lighter skin than Achilles, would snip pictures of famous people out of magazines, hold them next to his face, and say, “Doesn’t this look like me?” within earshot of their mother. Sometimes Troy was just an ass, and selfish too. As a child, he frequently squirreled food away in that closet cubbyhole. Troy ran away twice in middle school and once in high school, always returning before anyone noticed his absence, which really jerked his chain. So Achilles didn’t bother to call him now. It was his father’s funeral, too.

Nonetheless, Achilles couldn’t help but feel a burn in his chest, an unspeakable fear that threatened to shake his bowels loose every time he stumbled over what Troy left behind: his desert boots, folded BDUs, flak jacket, and the helmet with CONROY written in permanent marker, all coated in the fine layer of dust that had followed them home. He knew it was irrational, but the sight of that equipment gave him the shakes, so he packed it all away in a trash bag, double-bagged it and stuffed the bundle in the back of the closet, under the cover of two blankets. Back in rotation, when someone died, their gear remained hanging up as a memorial. The last three weeks of active duty, he used only the back flap of their tent to avoid passing Jackson’s bunk and seeing his uniform laid out on the bed, the helmet set neatly on top.

He considered making a dental appointment, solely for that moment after the cleaning when the hygienist flossed his teeth. Routine, sure, but it felt so damned good, almost self-indulgent, so indescribably delicious that he’d never admitted to anyone how much he enjoyed the sensation. They would surely think him mad, but he missed it all. The sound of unseen cars on wet roads, burning leaves in the fall, sleeping late, his own bed, familiar faces at every corner, silverware in a drawer instead of a bin. Before his eyes though, every image he’d recalled in detail over the last few weeks, those shimmering fantasies he counted in place of sheep, faded like apparitions, none being as he remembered. Seinfeld reruns, Marvel comics, his rock collection, Penthouse letters, James Bond novels, Austin Powers 1&2, butter pecan ice cream, School House Rock: he flitted from activity to activity like a starving mosquito. Being home alone felt cowardly, like he was missing something, like he was one those FOBBITS who never left the Forward Operating Base.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

The Times-Picayune, "Top 10 Books of 2012 for fans of New Orleans—and Louisiana—set tales"

HTMLGiant "11 Favorite Small Press Reads of 2012"

"[A] powerful, stylish debut novel . . . The stark backstory fleshing out Achilles and Troy's arduous combat duty over in 'Goddamnistan' smartly plays off the thorough exploration of modern American attitudes on race, war, and family."—Publishers Weekly

"The magnificence of Hold it 'Til it Hurts is not only in the prose and the story but also in the book's great big beating heart. These complex and compelling characters and the wizardry of Johnson's storytelling will dazzle and move you from first page to last. Novels don't teach us how to live but Hold it 'Til It Hurts will make you hush and wonder." —Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead

"Hold It 'Til It Hurts is the kind of impressive debut that marks its author, T. Geronimo Johnson, as a writer with a career that bears watching."—Stuart Dybek

"Hold It 'Til It Hurts is a novel about war that goes in search of passionate love, a dreamy thriller, a sprawling mystery, a classical quest for a lost brother in which the shadowy quarry is clearly the seeker's own self, and a meditation on family and racial identity that makes its forerunners in American fiction look innocent by comparison."—Jaimy Gordon, National Book Award Winner of Lord of Misrule

"T. Geronimo Johnson's Hold It 'Til It Hurts is a dazzling first novel about the power of pain and the strength of love....This novel raises—and answers—big questions, even as it maps the tough lives of men in cities under harrowing stress."-Gambit

"[T]he 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."-East Bay Express

"Johnson is bringing the news here, rendering beautifully the pleasures (silverware in drawers instead of bins) and pitfalls (guilty liberals at the bar) facing soldiers at home....Johnson tells this story with what must be a tremendously emphatic imagination, one that will serve him well in all his books to come."-The Star Tribune

"Hold It 'Til It Hurts was a brave book to write." -Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News

"Even as Johnson takes us on this odyssey through wartime America and an eventually devastated New Orleans, his ability to precisely describe the depths of a young man inoculated against both love and violence shocks us, again and again." —ZYZZYVA

"While Johnson's language is consistently stark, straight-forward, and deceptively simple, it manages to deftly capture Achilles— a decided anti-hero— as well as the modern American psyche and all the conflicts that go with it."—KGB Bar Lit Magazine

"There's a lot happening in this novel by a 2004-06 Stegner fellow, and not the least of it a sympathetic (and deliberately Homeric) portrayal of returning soldiers and a clear-eyed look at how race and privilege complicate so much of American experience."—STANFORD Magazine

"Geronimo. . .explor[es] the complexities of interracial adoption and the unbreakable bonds between brothers. I was deeply moved by Hold It 'Til It Hurts, and impressed by the ambition of the novel."—The Rumpus, Roxanne Gay's Reading Roundup

"Johnson, a native of New Orleans and a former Stegner Fellow, uses the aftermath of the hurricane to thaw out Achilles and help him forge some sense of identity."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Hold It 'Til It Hurts is a smartly-written and stylish meditation on family, love, masculinity, race and self-identity in modern-day society."—The Newark Journal

"Johnson's touching first novel is rigorously detailed."—Library Journal, "African American Perspectives"

"Hold It 'Til It Hurts is more about love and redemption than race or war. The bond that connects Achilles to his brother, Troy, is magnificently drawn, the depth of emotion unforgettable. And the surprises in the plotting herald the beginning of an impressive literary career."—CounterPunch

"Johnson...clearly did his research, nailing the postwar struggle for soldiers now forever imbued with the instinct to strike first. Afghanistan is really just a backdrop for the wars on the homefront, and the big questions raised by race and identity crash into one another just as Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans."—Time, "Winter Reading"

"Johnson, a New Orleans native, achieves his ambitions in a debut novel that we praised for its 'lively prose, crisp dialog and a story that sends and African-American combat vet on a search for his adoptive sibling in post-Katrina New Orleans."—The Times-Picayune

"What is most striking about the work is the haunting quality of Johnson's realism, which is capable of great sensuality and great coldness in the same paragraph, and can hold the intensity of memory at the same timbre of the present moment in a single sentence."—Zing Magazine

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