Afghanistan's brutal war and Hurricane Katrina's ominous shadow haunt Johnson’s powerful literary debut.
It is 2004, and Achilles and Troy Conroy return home to once-rural, now McMansion-ed, Maryland after tours in the same airborne infantry squad in “Goddamnistan.” The brothers expect a surprise party, but the surprise is that their father had been killed in an auto accident just as they began transit home. That shock is compounded by news that their parents had been living apart. The brothers are African-American, and their parents white. Their mother gives them each an envelope that contains information about their biological parents. Achilles refuses to open his envelope, while Troy, the younger, sets off in pursuit of his history without telling either his mother or brother. Johnson's descriptions of the very different brothers, of anecdotes from Afghanistan and of New Orleans are brilliant. Wages, Achilles' squad leader in "Goddamnistan," calls and reports that he has seen Troy in New Orleans. Achilles pursues Troy there, ostensibly for his mother, for family, but truly because he has been his brother’s keeper since youth. Troy searches drug dens, morgues and shelters for Troy without success, but over the months there, he meets and becomes lovers with Ines Delesseppes, a shelter coordinator he first believes to be white. But the Delesseppes family, ensconced in the Garden District since 1806, is thoroughly New Orleans, “we’re Creole, not mulatto, or octoroon or quadroon,” a mixture Ines celebrates in spite of her white appearance. Achilles, Troy, Ines and the men of the infantry squad are archetypical yet singularly distinctive, thoroughly and believably human. The depth, complexity and empathy within Johnson’s narrative explores issues great and small—race, color and class, the wounds of war suffered by individuals and nations, the complications and obligations of brotherhood and familial love.
Transcendent contemporary American literary fiction, a rich and passionate story rewarding enough to be read again.