Hold It ‘Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson
Coffee House Press, 2012; 343 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner


“He’d always thought that America’s poor weren’t really that poor. They didn’t live three generations deep in one stone apartment. They had running water and electricity. Their schools and nurseries weren’t bombed out. America’s poor had cars with stereos and phones with cameras. America’s poor had cable tv. America’s poor had credit. They had opportunities and choices. But looking at the tv, it appeared that while America’s poor had a better standard of living, they were largely the same as the poor elsewhere in the world—powerless to decide the basic direction of their lives.”

I cannot do justice to T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts with so few words. It is a large novel, surprising in its complexity and in just how much it contains. It is the story of adopted Achilles and his younger brother Troy, who live with their white parents in Maryland until Troy enlists, and Achilles follows his brother to “Goddamnistan.” The novel opens with the brothers returning from their tour, only about a year before Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Hold It ’Til It Hurts is a story about war and survival—and mostly about brotherhood. Just when the reader thinks it is addressing the treatment of U.S. veterans at home, it becomes larger than that—suddenly set in the trenches of a devastated city during the aftermath of Katrina. There are many visits to morgues as well as horrific scenes involving drug lords, burning houses, and dismembered bodies—and once a heartbreaking scene involving “a heavyset woman seated on the edge of her porch roof, holding a shoebox on her lap and kicking her toes in the water,” waiting for her dead son to return.

Achilles, our hero, has survived a war and now he must face this—a city abandoned by its country. It is a devastation much like that of the war he has already survived. Upon finishing this book, one might feel like a survivor as well, until one realizes the horrors Achilles has experienced are not comparable to any other. Hold It ’Til It Hurts leaves one feeling chilled both by the humanity and lack of it in a world that is very much our own. If the novel runs long—then let it—there is much more to say and, one hopes, many more novels to come.