If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

“I’d be able to move out of my car and rent my own apartment; I could live like a fully formed twenty-first-century North American human. I needed this.”

Being a big fan of collections of short stories following the same character/s, I was keen to read If I Survive You. Each chapter in this debut presents us with a self-contained story following a Jamaican American family from the 1970s to the 2008 recession. Most of these chapters provide us with a snapshot into the youngest son’s life, Trelawny, from his childhood experiences to his adulthood misadventures which see him, for a time, living in his car and attempting to find steady employment. In the first story, for instance, told through a 2nd pov, Escoffery uses Trelawny experiences to highlight how as a child he initially embraces everything related to America, but the more his peers question his identity and background, the more unmoored he comes to feel. His Jamaican parents express negative opinions about Black Americans and Trelawny himself does not feel like he fits in with the Black kids at his school. Eventually, he ends up ‘passing’ as Puerto Rican but his momentary acceptance to the Puerto Rican kids’ table is also short-lived. Trelawny’s experiences at school highlight the realities of race and racism in America, showing how pigeonholing others often relies on absurd and arbitrary conditions, and the real-life consequences of being a poc in a society that privileges whiteness. Time and again the people in Trelawny’s life attempt and fail to put in a box or label him in a certain way or we see how the adults around him behave or see him in a certain way.

“Of course, the difference between exiles and my parents—in fact, the difference between me and my parents—is that my parents have a homeland to which they can return.”

In the other chapters we meet Trelawny again as an adult: from the odd, and downright questionable, jobs he finds to make a living, to the circumstances that led to his father kicking me out (and him living in his car), to the feud he has with his brother, Delano, that reveal old wounds and insecurities. Trelawny’s dynamics with his brother and father had a lot of potential but sadly these are often left rather unexplored or merely hinted at. Because we are only given snapshots into their lives, these ultimately do not come together to form a cohesive family portrait or coming of age. Rather they seem like a series of vignettes strung together. The satire, although often clever and spot-on, could have been dialled down a little in favor of exploring different tones. I would have liked some more emotion, more depth, and more nuance. Trelawny’s mother is severely underused which is a pity as it made the story very male-centred. Which is fair enough but it was a pity that the men, Trelawny and his brother, who are given most page-time are different brands of stronzi. These short story sacrifice characterisation in favor of maintaining a certain satirical style.

“The downside of being the face of rent increases in a low-income development is that the residents wish you dead.”

Escoffery’s commentary—on race, on masculinity, on being Jamaican American, on growing up in Miami, on whiteness, on trying to survive financial and natural disasters, on attempting to strive in a capitalist society, on sacrificing one’s moral & ethical code to make a living—was irreverent and cutting to be the biggest strength of his storytelling. I just found the collection to be ultimately too focused on presenting us with vignettes that sure, are sardonic and clever, but are missing out on those emotional beats and that character development that would have made for a more memorable and richer reading experience. There were some genuinely witty lines/scenarios that made me laugh out loud though.

“Had it read DIE!!!! I’d have attributed the message to rage, which is passing, unsustainable. But die, to me, seems cool-headed. The sender appeared to have given it ample thought.”

Don’t let my so-so review dissuade you, however! If you are a books using this linked short-stories format, like Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah, Night of the Living Rez: Stories by Morgan Talty, Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta, you should definitely give Escoffery’s debut a read.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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