In Jonathan Escoffery’s lively debut collection, If I Survive You, promise is met with substance. The eight stories here explore a Jamaican American family’s efforts to contend with racism, economic precarity, and questions of belonging. The Oakland author’s book unfolds nonlinearly. Moments from early stories breeze in again throughout the collection, renewing previous emotional resonances and questions left ajar, windows onto a broken landscape.
“In Flux” introduces us to Escoffery’s most indelible character, Trelawny, a writer and English tutor born in the United States to Jamaican parents, who has a conflict that will reveal itself repeatedly over the course of the book. Trelawny is caught between the perceptions of others—including his father—which means his race and background are subject to a multiplicity of interpretations and inquiries: What are you? He goes from a tense and financially unstable childhood to a series of miserable, low-paying gigs that involve other people’s kink or boiled-over stresses.
Escoffery complicates things almost immediately, using Trelawny’s father, Topper, to narrate the next story, “Under the Ackee Tree,” in a second-person patois that intimates a wistfulness, almost a romanticism, at first. When Topper and his wife leave Jamaica for the United States with their baby son, Delano, the hope is “infinite potential.” But in Miami, he finds himself yearning for all the concrete things that separate one culture and place from another—the food, the trees, the language—and names his second son, Trelawny, after his home parish in northwest Jamaica. “In spite of him name,” Topper muses, “Trelawny grow up strange. Foreign.… When the boy start talk, you can’ believe it: is a Yankee voice come out. You read and talk to him as much as you can, but the boy no wan’ pick up nothing you say, not like him brother.”
Trelawny is vulnerable and sensitive, or, as his father sees it, “soft,” conscious of being a second-class citizen in the United States. His older brother is scrappy, a bit of a striving mess, overeager to pump himself up. It’s a study in contrasts, and to his father, Trelawny always comes up short. In a pivotal scene, Topper calls his second son “defective,” and Trelawny reacts by taking an axe to his father’s ackee tree. Such a trauma, we later learn, leaves the tree—a literal family tree, as it were—unable to bear fruit. The stories vibrate together with unspoken wordplay, phrases like “fruit of my loins.” Correspondences that would be too clever and on the nose if explicitly stated are interesting as substrate.
“Odd Jobs” highlights the book’s repeated excavation of the difficulty of surviving in the United States as a sensitive person of color. Trelawny answers the Craigslist ad of a woman who wants a black eye and is willing to pay “idk $35-40” but specifies “sorry, no black guys.” The startling final image of “Under the Ackee Tree,” a rage-filled gesture, returns as a memory that reverberates not only in Trelawny’s reluctant response to the woman’s wish but also in how her family reacts to him.
In other stories, the family tree branches out, pun intended. While Trelawny will later ask, “What is that inimitable bond between certain fathers and certain sons?,” all the men in Escoffery’s pages are trying, sometimes by doing emotional violence to themselves, and with varying levels of insight, to bear the insufficiencies of love. Trelawny’s cousin Cukie struggles with his own father’s abandonment. We also hear from Trelawny’s brother, an arborist, whom Topper lives with when the older man’s marriage falls apart. But it’s Trelawny who is far and away the psychological showstopper of the book—his heart that is most profoundly explored in all its vulnerable crannies.
The title story, which closes the collection, is its most electric. Trelawny answers an ad asking for a Black man to watch a white couple have sex. The narrative relates a pensively sketched but heart-wrenching confrontation that seems to draw us into the past while also hinting at the future.
Framed by the conditional “if” but stylistically sure-footed and concrete, If I Survive You binds the caustic with the aching of a character keenly aware of the world’s vivid underinvestment in his future yet determined to keep going. “If only my family had found me such a unifying force,” Trelawny reflects at one point. “I recognized it then, like petrichor, or some misplaced scent from childhood, not the familiar weight of existence crushing my lungs, but the awakening urge, the exquisite, racking compulsion to survive.”•