'If I Survive You' is a sweeping portrait of a family's fight to make it in America
Fall is the season when the publishing industry brings out its "big books" — the ones, mostly written by established authors, that are the safest bets to generate excitement and sales. So it's a special year when a debut breaks out of this distinguished pack and takes an early lead for its originality, heart, wit and sweeping social vision. The debut I'm cheering on is called If I Survive You, by Jonathan Escoffery and the "you" his characters are trying to survive is America itself.
If I Survive You is composed of eight interconnected short stories about a Jamaican family living in Florida. The parents, Topper and Sanya, fled Jamaica in the 1970s, desperate to escape political violence and eventually give their two sons, well, everything parents want to give their kids: education, opportunity and a crack at the pursuit of happiness. But the family keeps getting knocked down: by racism, the 2008 recession, and, most literally, by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which reduces their house to its "skeletal frame."
That's not to say Escoffery's characters are mere victims of Fate, as basic as that storm-stripped house of theirs. They themselves have plenty of agency to hurt, love, betray and simply misunderstand each other. And, their house, by the way, was no showplace pre-Hurricane. Here, to give you a taste of Escoffery's boisterous, snappy style are some passages from a story called "Pestilence" in which younger son, Trelawney, describes his childhood home:
The first and only plot of American soil my parents purchased together was plagued, as was the house they built atop it. The millipedes blackened our front steps, made mom tap dance from car to welcome mat. They crept up pipes, bursting from bath drains at our most vulnerable moments ...
We knew our house was cursed, not simply from the outside but from within. The animals we brought home met grisly deaths, no matter the care we took. Our Siamese fighting fish launched itself from its aquarium, as though the tank's water had been set to boil. ...
"Maybe no pets for a while," Mom said, guarding her mouth with her palm.
Trelawney is the sensitive American-born son, a puzzle to his frustrated father and tougher older brother and, thus, the natural narrator of many of these stories. In the opening story called "In Flux" — a family chronicle in miniature — Trelawney tries to figure out the answer to the elemental question that he's asked from childhood through adulthood. That question is: "What are you?"
In Jamaica, his middle-class, brown-complexioned parents didn't consider themselves Black. When Trelawney asks his mother, she shuts him down: "I was never asked such stupidness before coming to this country. If someone asks you ... tell them you're a little of this and a little of that."
Which is a true, but inadequate answer, because, as Trelawney, looking back on his younger self, reflects: "Race has descended upon your world, sudden and grating and what you fear most is that others recognize in you something that you've yet to grasp."
The stories here move forward in time, but keep returning to key moments, especially the party where Trelawney's father called him a vile name, thus propelling him into months of homelessness. In a standout story called "Splashdown," another riff on the overarching theme of father-son relationships gone wrong, we hear about Trelawney's 13-year-old cousin, Cukie, who lives for a summer with the father, nicknamed "Ox," who abandoned him shortly after birth.
Ox, we're told, lives on "the hem of the Atlantic" piloting yachts, setting traps for lobsters on the ocean floor, and doing other more unscrupulous work. Cukie says his father's vague stories about his past are filled with "uncontextualized brutality." Years later, when the unemployed Cukie himself becomes a new father, he searches out Ox for a job. After all, even a lousy father should provide some kind of safety net, right? I have to say, when I read the final scene of "Splashdown," my overwhelmed response was that not since Moby Dick has the all-American ethos of "sink or swim" on your own been dramatized to such devastating effect.
If I Survive You is an extraordinary debut collection, an intensively granular, yet panoramic depiction of what it's like to try to make it — or not — in this kaleidoscopic madhouse of a country.
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