Jonathan Escoffery’s Surprising Stories of Desperation

Trelawny, the narrator of one of the linked stories in “If I Survive You” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a ravishing début by Jonathan Escoffery, introduces himself by explaining, “I hunt elderly people. I wrangle them, force them into stiff, scratchy chairs before interrogating them.” Trelawny works in Miami, in a federally subsidized senior-housing complex, where he gathers intel on residents that would justify raising their rent. The job is rewarding: free parking, good vending machines. The downsides include anonymous notes, “penciled in lowercase letters,” that invite him to die. As the action begins, Trelawny’s most elusive quarry is an energetic old-timer named Carlos, who may or may not be concealing the fact that he works at Walgreens. “I’ve always liked Carlos,” Trelawny says. “Let me just put that out there.” But if Trelawny can confirm Carlos’s undisclosed income stream he might get a promotion, which would mean moving out of his car and renting his own apartment. “I could live like a fully formed twenty-first-century North American human,” he says. “I need this.”

Here is a tale about deprivation which stomps on the delicate vessel of the trauma plot. Escoffery offers vivid glimpses of the “nouveau hobo class”: to freshen up for a job interview, Trelawny fills a fast-food ketchup cup with hand soap and takes it to a beach shower. But he also upends expectations. The best part of being employed, Trelawny insists, isn’t “food security, the dignity of work, or the promise of upward mobility.” It’s having regular access to a toilet on which to “unload your twisted, clogged-up colon without having to fake like you’re planning to buy that Double McFuckery with fries.” The book, about an immigrant family struggling to make ends meet, delights in mocking the trope of an immigrant family struggling to make ends meet. In Trelawny’s experience, people routinely misapprehend what it’s like to live in poverty, or to be Jamaican American. And don’t get them started on Jamaica itself. As Trelawny notes, his fellow-Yankees “break into free association, as if they’d been tossed a rap cypher: Bob Marley, irie, ganja, poor people, Sandals, ’ey mon! ”

Escoffery’s fiction is marked by ingenuity. The eight stories in “If I Survive You” employ the first, second, and third person, as well as the past, present, and future tense. One tale unfolds in Jamaican patois; another dips in and out of Black American idioms. There’s peacocking humor, capers, and passages of shuddering eroticism. The book feels thrillingly free, and Escoffery, forty-one, has caught the publishing world’s attention: in 2020, he won the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a National Magazine Award. His technical exuberance stands in stark contrast to his subject matter, which can feel hopeless, a litany of the cruelties that people in straitened circumstances visit upon one another.

Still, there’s a difference between hope and grace. Literature abounds with characters who jury-rig salvation out of scraps. But Escoffery’s protagonists, though resourceful, can’t accomplish the impossible; nor do they sacrifice themselves for the reader’s sentimental education. If I survive you, the book qualifies, and its prose comes alive in that gasping and clawing—what Trelawny calls an “exquisite, wracking compulsion.” These characters are strange amalgams of limited agency and boundless originality. Their survival, perhaps, comes down to their style.

The stories largely concern the three men in Trelawny’s family. His father, Topper, and his mother, Sanya, fled Kingston in the nineteen-seventies, “not for economic advancement” but to “escape the violence the US government funded.” Topper is impulsive and homesick, and he vexes Sanya, the family’s breadwinner, with his moods. Their elder son, Delano—preening, charismatic, and prone to wise-stoner tautologies (“We all have to be what we have to be”)—is a budding guitarist and quarterback. Trelawny, the younger son, is bookish and ironic, and the most frequent narrator. Unlike Delano, Trelawny doesn’t have his father’s blue eyes or easy swagger, and he burns at “the way they fawned over my brother, the way he’d already inherited the best of what my parents had to offer.” At one point, Topper calls his second son “defective.”

The kids grow up in Cutler Ridge, an apparently cursed suburb of Miami. Nighthawks, disturbed from their nests in the ground, dive-bomb the boys’ heads. In the distance rises the peak and “buzzard halo” of Mt. Trashmore, a landfill whose smell ripens in the heat. Equally pervasive is the stench of sibling rivalry: when crabs invade the yard, their reflexive viciousness seems both mesmerizing and familiar. “We prodded the crabs into Mom’s gardening pail . . . with sticks and dried sugarcane stalks,” Trelawny recalls. “We hovered over the buckets and bet against the crabs as they dragged one another down into mutual destruction.”

Escoffery is interested in the comedy of infighting, and the scene’s on-the-nose quality is part of the joke. The book’s opening story illustrates a similar dynamic among students at Trelawny’s majority-minority school, where attacks take the form of a question: What are you? Trelawny wants “a one-word answer,” but Sanya waves away his queries about ancestry; he knows only that he’s a “rather pale shade of brown.” In a madcap sequence, Trelawny befriends a Puerto Rican crew but is exiled when they realize he doesn’t speak Spanish. The Jamaican kids ostracize him, calling him “light bright” and “red naygah.” When he reinvents himself as Black, his father scolds him for “turning into some kind of Yankee butu,” his mother forbids him to bring home “nappy-headed girls,” and a teacher, Mr. Garcia, accuses him of plagiarism because his science paper doesn’t sound like “someone like you wrote it.” Trelawny revises the essay to flatter Garcia’s assumptions: “Niggas be like, Why for when bullets fly, niggas die? Newton says it’s ’cause objects in motion be staying in motion. That was one scientific nigga, my nigga.”

Escoffery deftly renders the disorienting effects of race as they fall, veil-like and hostile, over a world of children. Interestingly, most of the novel’s white characters are goofy afterthoughts, too out of touch to inflict real injury. (At college in the Midwest, Trelawny’s classmates ask him what it was like living through Hurricane Katrina.) This is fitting: the stories specialize in intimate hurt, the kind that passes between those who might have a reason for solidarity. According to Escoffery, the first thing that must be survived in life is a father. The book’s dads are rarely physically abusive, but they are guilty of emotional—and sometimes literal—abandonment. Topper impregnates and leaves the family’s former babysitter, whose infant subsequently dies of malnutrition. His brother-in-law, Ox, forsakes a wife and a young son to launch a lobster-trapping business. That child, Cukie, sports his father’s nose—“pointed yet pressed close to his face like a stingray hovering above a patch of sand”—but doesn’t meet Ox until, as a teen-ager, he’s summoned to the marina. “What kind of man is he,” Cukie wonders, watching his father glide across the deck of a boat.

The answer proves slippery. In a scene that recalls the skittering crabs, Ox hands his son the tools of his trade and impersonates a lobster. “Cukie brought the net down on top of Ox,” Escoffery writes, “but Ox ducked and scurried to the side. Cukie tried again with increased intensity, but Ox fled in the opposite direction.” Fathers may sneak away, but they create a net of damage that entangles those around them. After Topper calls Trelawny a “soft boy,” Trelawny takes an axe to his father’s beloved ackee tree. Then he’s kicked out of the house. This, it turns out, is the origin story of his nomadic existence: a paternal beef that grew “too thick to choke down.”

In a series of odd jobs, Trelawny wrestles with the demands of identity. At one point, he answers a Craigslist ad from a woman, Chastity, seeking a black eye at the hands of a stranger. (“Sorry, no black guys,” the listing says.) Chastity appears at the door of her parents’ home, wearing a “white maxi and gold belt, tousled hair falling down her front and back . . . as though she’d recently escaped from a Grecian urn.” The simile, which locates something barbaric in the trappings of classical culture, places nervous, reasonable Trelawny in a world of archaic ritual and potentially cathartic extremity. Yet what follows is excruciatingly modern: a barbed navigation of privilege, guilt, shame, and desire. Trelawny gets cold feet. Chastity rebukes his paternalism. Trelawny protests that he’s Black; he doesn’t meet her criteria. Chastity says that they’re her father’s criteria—her older sister received “the beating of her life” after bringing a Black guy home—and Trelawny scoffs, “You’re like the twelfth White woman to have told me that story.” “I’m Latina,” Chastity says. After a while, Trelawny agrees to slap her, and feels “sick with hatred. For her father, yes, but for all fathers, for their propensity for passing down the worst of themselves.” It’s a startlingly rich scene, which combines the characters’ complicated histories into a gift—of pain and pleasure, sensation and absolution—that they ambivalently give each other.

Throughout, the refrain runs like an incantation: What are you? Escoffery, hosing his characters in a stream of fines, bills, and pay stubs, studies the bleak math of self-determination. He suggests that some people, caught between systems, are reduced to a clump of raw need, severed from their complete selves. But his stories also stress the ebullience, the possibility, that can emerge from in-betweenness. Consider the penultimate tale, which turns Delano into the star of a heist. In a last-ditch effort to make rent, and to buy a plane ticket to see his sons in California, Delano hatches a scheme to steal a bucket truck and score a landscaping contract. After a flurry of maniacal stunts, he seems, improbably, about to win; he feels a “vaguely familiar sensation creeping up, an emotion akin to joy . . . an idea that he controls his destiny.” The plan implodes, of course, but not before the world is shown Delano’s “purest, most concentrated self”: singing karaoke, the memory of his voice imprinted upon the crowd. Behind the microphone, Delano immortalizes the man he knows he is. Art is how he survives. ♦

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