New York Times review of ‘If I Survive You’ by Jonathan Escoffery

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Reviewer: Andrew Martin (New York Times)

The opening story of Jonathan Escoffery’s debut collection is a bravura overview of the themes and dynamics that will haunt the rest of the book. Titled “In Flux,” it’s a second-person chronicle (“You immediately resent this question”) of the protagonist’s early life as the younger of two brothers in a Jamaican immigrant family living in Miami. The story is Escoffery’s most direct engagement with the question of identity, as the protagonist, Trelawney, tries to figure out where he fits in a Spanish-speaking, multiethnic city that can’t figure out his parents’ Jamaican accents or his own ambiguous racial features.

The only American-born member of his immediate family, Trelawney cycles through potential identities, drawing ire from his father for adopting Black American cadences and styles, and then, on a pilgrimage to Jamaica, being called out as a Yankee interloper for asking things like “Do any of you look to England or West Africa as, you know, the motherland?” College in the Midwest provides temporary, if unsatisfactory, clarity: There, he is “unquestionably Black,” but also told constantly by Black waitstaff and bartenders that “you look like a guy who works here.” A little less clarity starts to seem like a blessing: “You wish some Dominicans would move into town.”

The “you” of this first story is welcoming: The reader is invited to share in Trelawney’s search for an authentic self, if such a thing exists, by enduring the frustrations and microaggressions he faces. But this gesture is productively complicated by the story that follows, also in the second person, this time narrated in patois by Trelawney’s father, a tough-minded general contractor who favors his elder son, Delano, for his similarities to himself. The contrast between these two “you”s — one an earnest acolyte of American self-fashioning, the other an old-world bootstrapper with little room for self-reflection — fuels the conflict at the heart of the book. At the end of the story, Trelawney attempts to chop down his father’s beloved ackee tree, an overt symbol of his, yes, Jamaican roots, after being called “defective” for his perceived softness and lack of gratitude. He is promptly banished from his father’s house.

In a conventional novel this would be the end of the first act, a jumping-off point for an intimate exploration of intergenerational damage and conflict. But Escoffery is after something more prismatic. We periodically follow Trelawney on his descent into the margins of society, living out of his car and taking on outré, ill-advised jobs from the internet (watching a rich couple have sex, punching a woman in the face “for a photo project”) and, even more soul-damaging, helping to orchestrate rent hikes at an unscrupulous senior living center. One story tracks Trelawney’s cousin Cukie as he develops a relationship with his own estranged father, a lobsterman living in the aptly named Smuggler’s Key. Another follows Delano as he tries to pull off the landscaping equivalent of “one last score” before a forecast hurricane makes landfall. The book moves backward and forward in time, immersing us in the muggy Miami atmosphere and the unresolved family tensions.

Given Escoffery’s skill in making me care for these characters, I wished at times that I was caught more forcefully in a current of narrative momentum with them, and some episodes (as when poor Cukie ends up in an overheated slice of Florida noir) struck me as less than convincing. But the author is, throughout, a gifted, sure-footed storyteller, with a command of evocative language and perfectly chosen details, as in his description of a biblical plague of crabs in which the brothers sit “in silent reverence for the clack of claws on asphalt, witnessing pincers and shell-fragments puncturing car tires up ahead.”

Perhaps most important, he wields a disarming, irreverent sense of humor, as when Trelawney’s brother tells him he’s “been acting like a bum.” “I took no offense,” Escoffery writes, “but clarified, I identify as dispossessed.” It could be this writer’s credo, and it’s the kind of line that makes me eager to read him for a long time to come.

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