Johnson's debut novel reworks a venerable theme: the young American who travels abroad to forge a new identity but ends by discovering that he is far more American than he'd realized.
Chris Jones is a 31-year-old African-American, living in Philadelphia, who wants to work in advertising but is having trouble breaking into the bigger New York agencies. When a job offer arrives from a small London agency, he leaps at the chance. Initially, his middle-class London neighborhood of Brixton seems a paradise compared to inner-city Philadelphia. No drug dealers on the streets, no gun battles at night, no pervasive climate of racism. Just as James Baldwin and Richard Wright found sanctuary in Paris, London offers Chris a spiritual liberation that Philadelphia couldn't. But there are ripples in the seemingly placid surface: Chris's boss, David Crombie, is mercurial and unreliable, and his Nigerian lover, Fionna Otubanjo, seems more interested in his bank account than in Chris. Then, when David dies suddenly, Chris finds himself broke and out of a job. He returns reluctantly to Philadelphia, promising himself that he'll go back to London as soon as possible. Life at home is a struggle: enduring a squalid apartment, struggling to find work, seeing his hopes evaporate. Urged on by his closest friend, Alex, Chris finally lands a job answering phones at the electric company, bringing him into contact with precisely the kind of dream-deferred, inner-city life that he tried to escape in London. In scenes both corrosively funny and bittersweet, Chris discovers that he has an innate American sensibility not so easily discarded. The tale ends on an optimistic note, as Chris sees both Philadelphia and London in a newer, wiser light.
Johnson's writing is uneven, often piling on similes and metaphors enough to slow down the narrative. But he gets his story told and his characters are real in what, on balance, ends up as a strong debut.