Fall is the season when the publishing industry releases its “big books” – those, mostly written by established authors, that are the surest bets for generating excitement and sales. It is therefore a special year when a first album is released by this distinguished group and quickly takes the lead for its originality, its heart, its spirit and its radical social vision. The first album that I applaud 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 made up of eight interconnected short stories about a Jamaican family living in Florida. Parents, Topper and Sanya, fled Jamaica in the 1970s, desperate to escape political violence and eventually gave their two sons, well, everything parents want to give their children: education, opportunities and chance to find happiness. But the family continues to be toppled: by racism, the 2008 recession and, more literally, by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which reduced their house to its “frame”.
That’s not to say Escoffery’s characters are mere victims of fate, as basic as their storm-stripped home. They themselves have a lot of free will to hurt each other, love each other, betray each other, and just misunderstand each other. And, by the way, their house was not a storefront before the hurricane. Here, to give you a taste of Escoffery’s loud and lively style, are a few passages from a story called “Pestilence” in which his youngest son, Trelawney, describes his childhood home:
The first and only piece of American land my parents bought together was infested, as was the house they built on it. Centipedes blackened our steps, tap-dancing mom from the car to the welcome mat. They slithered through the pipes, bursting out of the tub drains at our most vulnerable moments…
We knew our house was cursed, not just from the outside but from the inside. The animals we brought home met gruesome deaths no matter how much care we gave them. Our Siamese fighting fish launched itself out of its aquarium, as if the water in the tank had been boiled. …
“Maybe no pets for a while,” mom said, shielding her mouth with her palm.
Trelawney is the sensitive American-born son, a headache for his frustrated father and tougher older brother, and therefore the natural narrator for many of these stories. In the opening story titled “In Flux” – a miniature family chronicle – Trelawney tries to find the answer to the basic question he has asked himself from childhood to adulthood. This question is:What are you?”
In Jamaica, her dark-skinned, middle-class parents did not consider themselves black. When Trelawney asks her mother, she shuts him up: “I’ve never been asked such stupidity before I came to this country. If anyone asks you…tell them you’re a bit of this and a bit of that.”
Which is a true answer, but an inadequate one, for, as Trelawney, looking back on her youth, reflects: “Race has descended upon your world, sudden and grating, and what you fear most is that others will recognize in you something you have yet to grasp.”
The stories here jump forward in time, but keep coming back to key moments, especially the party where Trelawney’s father called him a dastardly name, thus propelling him into months of homelessness. In a remarkable story called “Splashdown,” another riff on the general theme of father-son relationships gone awry, we hear about Trelawney’s 13-year-old cousin Cukie, who lives one summer with the father, nicknamed ” Ox”. who abandoned him shortly after his birth.
Ox, we are told, lives on “the hem of the Atlantic”, piloting yachts, setting lobster traps on the ocean floor and doing other less scrupulous work. Cukie says her father’s vague stories about her past are filled with “contextless brutality”. Years later, when the unemployed Cukie himself becomes a new father, he seeks employment at Ox. After all, even an ugly dad should provide some kind of safety net, right? I must say that when I read the final scene of “Splashdown” my overwhelming response was that not since Moby-Dick Has the American ethos of “sink or swim” by yourself been dramatized to such devastating effect?
If I survive you is an extraordinary first 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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