"If I Survive You," the open-ended title of Jonathan Escoffery's remarkable debut collection, could be prelude to a threat, a vow, a plea or even a weary shake of the head. The conditional resolution is never definitive in these tremendous interconnected stories, but rather continually adapted, as Escoffery cycles between the menace posed by negligent fathers, climate disasters, a racist society and a protagonist who may "burn [himself] up in pursuit of survival."
That determined, perhaps fated, principal is Trelawny, the American-born son of Jamaican immigrants who grows up in Florida and goes to college in the Upper Midwest, a background similar to that of Escoffery, who graduated from the University of Minnesota's MFA program in fiction.
Nearly all eight stories are based in Cutler Bay, the neighborhood south of Miami where Trelawny grows up, an area battered by both 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which uproots his family and shatters his parents' strained marriage, and 2008's Great Recession, which eliminated the $40,000-a-year entry-level jobs his generation had been promised their entire lives.
"In Flux," a virtuosic 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 are continued through four other stories, ending when he is 32. Neither Black nor white but "a rather pale shade of brown," Trelawny is gawked at and fawned over, coveted and excluded, by those, including at times himself, intent on classifying him.
Both "Odd Jobs" and the titular story brilliantly and archly turn this othering on its head, as Trelawny answers Craigslist ads from white people desperate to buy the kind of humiliation, psychological or physical, that he and other nonwhite Americans face regularly. Chastity, who "looked as though she'd recently escaped from a Grecian urn," wants a black eye "to see what it feels like," while the "perverse puppeteers" Morgan and Tim are seeking someone "PREFERABLY BLACK" to watch them in the bedroom. In both instances, Trelawny can't escape without making himself a target as well.
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 a prominent Jamaican patois. Escoffery masterfully transliterates the dialect, as when Topper is explaining that a November visit to Brooklyn was so cold that "you no wan' know what winter go do."
"Splashdown" is the only story not directly concerned with Trelawny, and the only previously unpublished piece. Trelawny's cousin Cukie is sent to the Florida Keys to stay with his estranged father Ox after flunking seventh grade. Though he gains a work ethic while learning to trap lobsters, he cares more about knowing why his father abandoned him and his mother. It's more atmospheric, tinted by both classic Hollywood and Miami Vice, but remains thematically resonant via its bad dad.
The remaining story focuses on Trelawny's older brother, Delano, which leaves only their mother, Sanya, without a dedicated story in the collection. Based on the immense talent on display in this debut, here's hoping that Escoffery's sophomore effort is a whole novel about her.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.
If I Survive You
By: Jonathan Escoffery.
Publisher: Macmillan, 272 pages, $27.