“If I Survive You”, by Jonathan Escoffery
“If I survive you”, the open title of Jonathan Escoffery’s remarkable first collection, could be the prelude to a threat, a wish, a plea or even a weary nod. The conditional resolution is never final in these formidable interconnected stories, but rather continually adapted, as Escoffery oscillates between the threat posed by neglectful fathers, climatic disasters, a racist society and a protagonist who can “burn [himself] in pursuit of survival.”
That determined, perhaps fatal, director is Trelawny, the American-born son of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in Florida and went to college in the Upper Midwest, a similar background to that of Escoffery, a graduate of the University of Minnesota MFA program in fiction.
Almost all eight stories are based in Cutler Bay, the south Miami neighborhood where Trelawny grew up, an area battered both by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which uprooted his family and shattered his parents’ strained marriage, and the Great Recession of 2008, which wiped out the $40,000-one-year entry-level jobs his generation had been promised a lifetime of.
“In Flux”, a virtuoso discourse on the nuances of race and culture in America, opens with Trelawny at age 9, and his struggles to find his place in the world continue through four more stories, ending when he turns 32. neither white but “a rather pale shade of brown”, Trelawny is gaped and flattered, coveted and shunned by those, including sometimes himself, who intend to class him.
“Odd Jobs” and the main story brilliantly and mischievously subvert this otherness, as Trelawny responds to Craigslist ads from white people desperate to buy the kind of humiliation, psychological or physical, that he and other nonwhite Americans enjoy. undergo regularly. Chastity, who ‘looked like she recently escaped a Greek urn’, wants a black eye ‘to see how it feels’, while ‘evil puppeteers‘ Morgan and Tim search for someone “PREFERENTLY BLACK” to watch them in the bedroom. Either way, Trelawny can’t escape without also making himself a target.
The language shines throughout the collection, especially in “Under the Ackee Tree”, which details the story of Topper, Trelawny’s father, and is written entirely in prominent Jamaican patois. Escoffery masterfully transliterates the dialect, such as when Topper explains that a visit to Brooklyn in November was so cold that “you don’t know what winter is going to do.”
“Splashdown” is the only story not directly about Trelawny, and the only unreleased piece. Trelawny’s cousin, Cukie, is sent to the Florida Keys to stay with his estranged father Ox after failing seventh grade. Although he gains a work ethic by learning how to trap lobsters, he cares more about why his father abandoned him and his mother. It’s more atmospheric, tinged with both classic Hollywood and Miami Vice, but remains thematically resonant via its bad father.
The remaining story focuses on Trelawny’s older brother, Delano, who leaves only their mother, Sanya, without a dedicated story in the collection. Based on the immense talent showcased in that debut album, we’re hoping Escoffery’s second effort will be a whole novel about her.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.
If I survive you
By: Jonathan Escoffery.
Editor: Macmillan, 272 pages, $27.