If I Survive You
- By Jonathan Escoffery
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- February 23, 2023
Men are haunted by their own poor decisions in this stellar collection of linked stories.
I’m sorry to be late to the Jonathan Escoffery party — the one celebrating the author whose debut story collection, If I Survive You, came out last September to widespread acclaim — but glad I finally made it.
These stories — which are so closely linked that the reader’s experience is much more that of a novel in eight parts — have the character Trelawny at their heart, with his brother, Delano, mother Sanya, and father Topper pressing in, along with cousin Cukie and an orbiting cast of others. The voices we hear are exclusively male, and the central question to be answered, asked of selves and of fathers, is, “What kind of man are you?”
Trelawny makes it clear from the outset that he is a cohort of one, this second son of Jamaican immigrants living in Miami, the child born in America. In school, he hangs with the Puerto Ricans until they out him as other when they demand to know why nobody ever taught him to speak Spanish. The Jamaicans treat him with suspicion because he’d been hanging with the rival crew. Plus, he speaks like a white boy.
Everyone demands that he categorize himself, the constant, sharp, “What are you?” brooking no nuance (though when he goes to college in the Midwest, there is never a question: He’s Black). Trelawny fits in nowhere, even — perhaps especially, and certainly most painfully — in his own family. Delano, five years older, is the favored one:
“The way they fawned over my brother, the way he’d already inherited the best of what our parents had to offer, down to our father’s eyes — eyes that strangers interrupted their day to gush over. How often I had stood outside the huddle…How often I’d wondered if I had actually disappeared.”
The ultimate betrayal comes after Hurricane Andrew destroys their house, just downwind from the miasmal stench of Mount Trashmore, which the boys agreed long ago was cursed, plagued. Once Topper and Delano rebuild it, Delano casually announces that Trelawny and their mother will not be moving back in. The family is being cleaved in two, and Topper is keeping the son who is first in his heart.
It’s a given that Trelawny is the author’s alter ego, and he has us even before hello. But Escoffery imbues each of his speakers with a fragile humanity that lets us see them fully, whether at the moment we’re laughing out loud, wincing in anticipation of calamity, or feeling our hearts break. His gift is in how much meaning and weight he invests in each sentence without our even noticing it.
That Topper wanted to go to art school and be a fashion designer — this man who has a construction business and cannot fathom his book-loving child — is just one surprising element of his father that Trelawny could never guess. If only he could hear Topper speak his thoughts aloud: “And you think how Sanya’ right, you regret everything. And you wonder if it’s you must be defective since you ruin everything.” Instead, any words the two exchange seem to hurtle past each other and drown in puddles of misunderstanding.
Even Delano, maddeningly sure of his birthright as the favored one, grows into the realization that this does not protect him from a buffeting by the larger world. When he improbably gets away with stealing back his bucket truck from a crooked mechanic in order to cash in on emergency tree-trimming ahead of the impending hurricane, we know it just means he’s setting himself up for a larger disaster.
Trelawny, as his brother predicted early on, gets the shaft, often in eye-popping ways. He is over-educated, under-employed, and often homeless, living in his Dodge Raider without money for gas. He answers a Craigslist ad for a young woman who wants someone to give her a black eye (the caveat: no Black guys). Much later, he answers another ad from a husband and wife who want a guy to watch them having sex (the caveat: Black guy preferred). What could go wrong?
When, still homeless, Trelawny works at a government-subsidized senior housing project, charged with wringing the maximum amount of money out of the poor immigrants who live there, the best part for him is that he has reliable access to a toilet. It is both the funniest and the saddest story in the collection.
The story that haunts me, though, is Cukie’s. In a family of poor decision-makers — faced with options, these men inevitably cling to the worst possible one — Cukie’s choice is the most catastrophic. We urge him to stay there in the hospital room with his girlfriend, Lianne, and newborn son, Julius; now is not the time to confront his absent father, even if it’s to try to get a job to support his family. We plead with him to hit “Send” on the text to let Lianne know he’s coming back. Because he plans to; he’s not his father, and he will not abandon his child. We practically shriek at him not to attempt to blackmail his father, certainly not when they’re miles off the coast in a speedboat:
“Cukie, finally understanding the man his father is, will set his thoughts on Lianne’s texts and how he might survive in her and Julius’s imaginations.”
Of Trelawny’s own string of poor decisions, the poorest may be that he decides he wants to buy Topper’s house — the one that’s cursed and sinking and mortgaged to the hilt and in foreclosure — only because Delano also wants it. The scars from his father and brother make Trelawny reckless, willing to go all in on a bad hand. It will be something for him to survive it.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.