“Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” by T. Geronimo Johnson is not a book that I would have ever picked up on my own, but when the Wall Street Journal Book Club picked this as the next book, I thought why not? I did not realize what I was getting myself into and to be perfectly honest, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this book.
In “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” we follow Achilles Conroy who has just returned from Afghanistan to find his father has died. His white mother gives Achilles and his brother Troy envelops containing information about their birth parents. Achilles has never wanted this information and convinces himself that Troy feels the same way until he wakes up one morning and realizes that Troy took his envelop and left. His mother asks him to go find Troy and so Achilles leaves home and embarks on a journey to find his brother and ultimately, find his own place in the world after returning home from war.
“Running through his list, Achilles doubted he would ever be happy because he couldn’t stop holding his breath. Even that was cynicism. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he was thinking about without being cynical about it. The army taught him to hope for the best but expect the worst.” (Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, pg 114). Going to war changed him and coming back was almost worse. Trying to live a normal life after having spent so much time being shot at, shooting at others, and watching his friends be killed seemed impossible at times. His attempts to reintegrate into society were challenging. Friendships that worked abroad didn’t quite work at home. He meets Ines and falls hard for her and at the same time, doesn’t seem to have the ability to tell her the truth about himself. He spends so much time hiding everything about his past. He tries to cover for this by saying he doesn’t want to live in the past, but the truth is that he is having trouble facing his demons. Rather than getting help and coping with his issues, he buries it deep within himself.
There were significant examinations of race in this novel. It was a different experience for Achilles having been raised by white parents and going out into the world where a lot of black people judge him harsher by the way that he talks and holds himself. His parents always pushed that race didn’t matter, but as they were protecting him and his brother, they also were shielding them from the hatred in the world that they would experience as soon as they left their hometown. The thing that I really liked about this book was how Johnson really made me stop and think. It was the kind of book that you don’t soon forget.
Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. There are some parts of this book that I wish I had never read. There was a specific incident at a drug dealer’s house that was disturbing and made me almost stop reading the book altogether. But at the same time, reading about Katrina and the aftermath was eye opening. The hurricane hit when I was just graduating high school. I couldn’t comprehend what it really meant or how bad it was. But in “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” Achilles is deep in the aftermath trying to keep up with his amazingly good-hearted girlfriend. There were a lot of things that happened in this book that just blew me away. This is certainly not for everyone, but I did take a lot away from it. Sometimes it is worth going outside your comfort zone.