On the shelf
If I survive you
By Jonathan Escoffery
MCD: 272 pages, $27
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The best book titles feel very different to the reader once the book is finished. And the best books teach you their own logic, offering specific and surprising definitions of previously canned words and ideas. It is to Jonathan Escoffery’s great credit that upon completing his first collection of stories, If I Survive You, I realized how differently I felt about the title set. What does it mean to survive? Under what conditions might this be possible? Who is the “you” in each of our lives? Who is she”?
It almost feels ridiculous to use the term artist novel, but perhaps many first books are just that — portraits of an artist struggling to be born. Escoffery’s version consists largely of stories about Trelawny, the Miami-raised son of Jamaican immigrants, in those early years of trying to get by. In the stories we follow the same basic outline of his life: his father starts a contracting business, with limited success; Hurricane Andrew hits; the family moves to Fort Lauderdale; Dad starts getting more work; Dad moves back to Miami, to the house he rebuilt, but the parents decide to split up and separate the kids too. Dad chooses Trelawny’s brother Delano instead of him.
Finally, Trelawny goes to college in the Midwest: “One wonders what would have happened if a real black man had been admitted. You imagine your classmates running for their lives. … You wonder if another black person will be admitted. You watch the years go by and none go by.” He finishes and goes back to Florida. His mother moves back to Kingston. He has a bunch of crappy jobs and answers Craigslist ads for extra money and, after briefly living with Dad again, is homeless for a while.
Amidst this aimlessness there is a story, told impressively in Jamaican dialect and also in the second person, that focuses on Dad’s early days and his decision to leave Jamaica for the States. “If you’re not careful life gets so carefree until your daddy says it’s time to get serious boy and stop playing. time to get work. Time to be a man.” To further complicate our relationship with the “you,” there are two other second-person stories that follow Trelawny instead.
The earliest contender for the ‘you’, who perhaps needs the ‘me’ most to survive, is the father – Trelawny’s, but also Trelawny’s father, also his friend Cukie’s, also everyone’s. This is how they invade you, if only as an absence; the way both their memory and failure begin to grow and fester; the way our parents shape us, not only by giving, but also by not giving – especially by not showing us how to live.
The “you” is also starting to feel like everyone who isn’t Trelawny, including but not limited to the white woman who agrees to pay him money to beat her in the “odd jobs” story, or that white couple who hired him in the cover story to watch them have sex, or his Cuban girlfriend’s racist family. The “you” feels like anyone refusing to let Trelawny be anything other than what they projected onto him. “It strikes you that people like you – people who burn themselves in the quest to survive – rarely survive anyone or anything.”
Ideally, short stories evoke increased attention: more crystallized than novels, they reveal the vastness of a focused period of time with its layers and textures. At its best, Escoffery’s stories do it, putting the reader in the heartbreak of paternal rejection, in the desperation of only needing $20 more. But the book suffers a little in that each story needs to feel distinct, even though they mostly span the same short time span. Having the same backstory outlined in so many stories made me wonder if there was a novel in their bones. But Escoffery also makes a strong case for the story because of the fun he finds in it (a joy that is passed on to the reader), the different angles and tenses in which he plays, and the exuberant sense of humor he brings applied throughout.
He’s also doing Florida incredibly well. I grew up there; few people understand how it digs into your bones as well as Escoffery. Here’s Trelawny outside his father’s house, where he’s the only one paying rent after his brother kicked him out: “The croaking lizards scatter over the stucco wall as you walk down the front yard. Trashmore’s radio fumes burn your lungs, and as you work your way up, the stench laminates your skin and slowly suffocates you.”
And here’s Cukie on a summer’s day in the Keys: “The morning sun is already melting everything to chowder or dead fish and salt water. The heat presses Cukie’s hair against his scalp. If he takes a deep breath, he can taste his sour meat in the soup, and the more he does it, the more he realizes it’s not cooking, it’s rotting.”
The author also encapsulates more universal conditions, such as the pain of knowing you can’t come from any people other than who you came from – loving them, still wanting them to love you, and at the same time to it’s smart to expect them to change: “Still, this house cradles your prepubescent memories: the lost baby teeth, the young skin scraped and sculpted into the interior walls. …Dried as it may be, your blood is caked in the foundation of this house. Their DNA is mixed with their bones.”
In the end, the book tells us – and I almost wish it didn’t – who the “you” is. The last line gives us an idea of how we can survive, and also how hard and persistent that “if” can be. What it also promises is more from an author I can’t wait to see write books for a long time to come.
Among other things, Strong is a critic and author of the forthcoming Flight.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-06/jonathan-escoffery-if-i-survive-you-blazing-stories-of-american-dream Review: Jonathan Escoffery’s debut stories, “If I Survive You”