Hold It ’Til It Hurts

A debut novel by T. Geronimo Johnson

Finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award

“[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

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August 2012
6.1 x 8.8 | 340 pages
Paperback Original

ISBN: 978-1-56689-309-1.



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.


“[A] powerful literary debut . . . 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 by 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.” —Kirkus, starred review

[Hold It ’Til It Hurts] addresses complex themes of war, love, kinship, and race yet has the tension of a thriller. For all readers of literary fiction.” —Library Journal

“Johnson tells both a love story and a quest story while unleashing pointed social critiques, all the while taking readers into the turmoil of an ex-soldier seeking to reconcile his own conflicting emotions about war, family, and race. An impressive debut from a writer to watch.” —Booklist

“[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

“As does Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison, [Johnson] connects characters through the spirit and the body.” American Book Review

“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

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

“T. Geronimo Johnson explores the burdens and bonds of brotherhood in this exquisitely crafted novel of war and its aftermath. Johnson easily earns the reader’s rapt attention as he chronicles Achilles’s search for his brother in the land of lost promise that is twenty-first-century America.” —Robin Hemley

“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 empathic imagination, one that will serve him well in all his books to come.” —Star Tribune

Hold It ‘Til It Hurts is a novel that defies categorization. It is at once a mystery, a meditation, a modern-day myth, an indictment of war and an ode to love. But this much is clear: This masterfully written book, filled with trenchant observations and unafraid of tenderness, marks Johnson as a writer to watch.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“[Hold It 'Til It Hurts is] surprising in its complexity and in just how much it contains. . . there is much more to say and, one hopes, many more novels to come.” American Microreviews

“Geronimo packs his much-anticipated debut novel with lively prose, crisp dialog and a story that sends an African-American combat vet on a search for his adoptive sibling in post-Katrina New Orleans.” —The Times-Picayune

Hold It ‘Til It Hurts was a brave book to write.” —Room220: 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, “Shelf Life”

“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

“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 Network Journal

“Johnson’s touching first novel is rigorously detailed.” —Library Journal

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”

Hold It ’Til It Hurts demands deep engagement and is a worthy addition to recent fiction about our twenty-first-century wars. . . . This is a vivid and provocative novel.” —TriQuarterly Review

“Johnson’s writing left me constantly pushing towards the next plot-twist, not just at the ends of chapters, but at the end of every paragraph. . . . It’s this anxiety-ridden, and sometimes heart-wrenching, prose that grasps the attention of readers and holds it through the end of the novel.” —Hazel & Wren

“Writers Forum”WRBH 88.3FM in New Orleans, Broadcast


The windows were up, unlike all those hours with gun barrels resting on the doorframes. Troy had grown increasingly sullen the closer they came to home, his face set in the scowl he usually only wore after losing—a game, a bet, a race, a woman. He perked up when a dump truck with DC plates cut them off, snapping, “Rock’em sock’em, two-oclock!” laying on the horn and swerving across three lanes onto the rough while Achilles barked, “Got it!” as he planted both feet on the floorboard, pressing his back into the seat to steady his aim while reaching for the weapon he didn’t have. Achilles had expected that sooner or later they’d get zulu-foxtrot. It was the kind of shit they saw in old movies, salty vets tensing up if someone so much as snapped. They’d laughed off their Deer Hunter moment, each claiming the other would play Christopher Walken’s character, and Troy went right back to sulking like he did before passing out drunk, his head lolling back and his words garbled like he was forcing them out to keep from choking on them.

For the last few months everybody had talked about nothing but home, until the final weeks, when no one mentioned home at all, but Achilles knew they thought about it. Everyone wore a faraway look—not the kind that settled over them like a shroud after the first firefight, not the triumphant glare that was a shield, not the inward gaze they wore after Jackson died, when they avoided each others’ eyes for the ride home, as Troy now seemed to be doing. It was another look, like quiet embarrassment, like they were each watching a film no one else could see, some romantic comedy they were forced to endure but ended up secretly enjoying. It was then that they redoubled the promise to stay in touch, start a Myspace page, have an annual reunion. Achilles knew the desperate promises wouldn’t hold, not with everyone already retreating into the past. Merriweather stopped playing rap, opting again for the gospel that shook their tent the first few weeks.Wages started writing Bethany more, scribbling every night by the glow of his flashlight, or clicking away on his laptop, depending on how the day had gone. “Some shit’s just easier to type.” Troy had found a battered Kama Sutra in a raid, and immediately loaned it out, because it was “too much like window shopping.”He reclaimed the book not long before they left, openly studying it at dusk and dawn, reading and rereading like it was a newspaper and he had to catch up with the rest of the world.

Achilles’s short list: food, sleep, Janice, a run through the creek behind his house. He knew the land inside and out, the shady grove that separated his house from Happy Garden, the trailer park where Janice lived. On hot nights, he’d often dreamed of those sweet-smelling woods, and the cool, clear creek that ran though them swashing about his ankles. He hadn’t seen a frog in almost a year. He thought he might even go hunting with his father, which he hadn’t done since high school. He still wouldn’t shoot anything, but he now understood his father’s pleasure at being in the woods, away from the concrete and congestion. Hunting had never been about the animal, only the single-minded stalking of worthy prey. He didn’t know what he’d tell Janice, but they could go to the quarry, walk through the woods like they used to. Maybe they’d get serious.

Troy’s list: the PBR on tap at the VFW, a giant roller coaster, and women, “Anyone would do right now.”The roller coaster surprised Achilles. His brother had explained, “I want to know if they still scare me.”When they passed the amusement park, Achilles jokingly jerked the wheel toward the exit. Troy shrugged. “Does it matter? We have nothing but time now. Nothing fucking else.”

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