BookBrowse Reviews If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

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If I Survive You

by Jonathan Escoffery

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery X
If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
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  • Published:
    Sep 2022, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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The American-born son of Jamaican immigrants navigates an uncertain world.

In If I Survive You, author Jonathan Escoffery portrays a family falling apart with grace. Main character Trelawny, the sensitive second son of Jamaican immigrants, endures racism and confusion. His overwhelmed parents can't nurse his insecurities; mostly they embarrass him, particularly when they speak patois in public. Trelawny is Jamaican by proxy. American by birth.

When Trelawny asks his mother if he is black, it feels like a profound moment. But Sanya doesn't understand the point of his question and offers a chaste genealogy lesson. Frustrated when he keeps pressing, she blurts, "I was never asked such stupidness before coming to this country. If someone asks ... you tell them, you are a little of this and a little of that." Trelawny knows that a threshold has just been crossed. He now has permission to hopscotch around identity based on the situation.

In college, Trelawny is older but internally troubled. He is confronted about dating women of different races by his black friend Sheila, who complains, "you are on some taste-the-rainbow shit." When he confides in her about his isolation, one of the few moments of intimacy he dares to broach, she dismisses it with "What do white-skinned tears taste like? Are they hydrating?"

Trelawny's anxiety and insecurity spike one drunken night in the Midwest when he tells a Somali cab driver to "take me to black people" and is taken to a hip-hop club. There he notices that the men on the dance floor, the ones who look like him and by their very presence satisfy his hunger for blackness, are dancing with white women. His longing for membership in an exclusive black club dissolves beneath the heavy lights and pulsating rap music, as does his joy.

Even when he goes to Jamaica, something is missing. Most of the locals, including family members, are dismissive when he calls himself Jamaican American. "But what you know 'bout Jamaica?" they ask.

This is the undercurrent in Escoffery's collection of linked stories, this idea that belonging and attachment begin not at conception but at the place of birth, and that both can be toxic. Are you Jamaican if you were born in America? Is Jamaica in your soul? Or have you been so transplanted into American culture that you are just a Caribbean tourist?

A thing of beauty is Escoffery's crisp prose, particularly as he describes the ramshackle Florida house Trelawny grew up in, ruined by Hurricane Andrew.

"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. Mom ladled it off the carpet with the square-rimmed net and thrust it back into its tank, jamming the lid down, but this seemed only to enrage the fish."

Hurricanes are ugly wet things that displace families. After moving to Broward County, Trelawny's father and brother make frequent trips to Miami-Dade, repairing what Andrew wrought. The symbolism of the home as a place of economic freedom and Americanization is complicated by Trelawny, the American son not allowed to join the construction. The first time he is able to see the new house it feels surreal. His bedroom is now a haphazard dining area. Every trace of him is gone, yet it's not surprising. The relationship between him and his father has always been off. Trelawny didn't work with his hands like his older brother Delano. Contempt replaced affection as Topper called his youngest son weak and soft and defective. It cuts both ways, though, this jagged knife. Trelawny maligns his father in return: "Don't blame me 'cause you used me for a green card. I didn't choose to be born here."

Trelawny begins sleeping in his car after college. It is the recession of 2009. Eventually, he finds work as an administrative assistant at a subsidized apartment building for the elderly with a long waiting list to get in: "I hunt elderly people. I wrangle them, force them into stiff, scratchy chairs before interrogating them." Trelawny spends an inordinate amount of time chasing tenants down to see if they are breaking the rules by having a second job or smoking in their unit, or if they cannot take care of themselves. Then they have to move.

These masculine-centered stories in If I Survive You make a lot of sense: Hustling to make ends meet rips at strivers' mental health. But so does a neglectful father. I was struck by how for a person of Trelawny's age, a millennial coming into his own, he lacks infatuation. With anything. Himself. The world. Women. America.

There is a particular scene I remembered. Trelawny is living in his car and is spotted by a high school classmate, a security guard named St. Pierre. St. Pierre tells Trelawny that he has to move his red Dodge Raider from the mall parking area. Both children of immigrants, they are different men. St. Pierre slogged through the crumbs of American benevolence while Trelawny went to college. Not thinking much of Trelawny's choices, St. Pierre suggests that college degrees don't do much for "people like us. They're going to hold us down either way. 'S'why I didn't bother." Put off by this brush-off, Trelawny broods, "I'd experienced similarly artificial camaraderie with fellow second-generation immigrants I met at college who thought they were transgressive in electing to take literature courses when their parents expected them to go to medical school." His own father expected him to work at Home Depot, as if that was all he could possibly achieve, as if he should dream low.

The truth is closer to this: Immigrants and their children often see the world through different lenses. One group is hustling to fit in. But in an experience that is just as complex, the other wants the accouterments that come with being happy. Embedded in all of it is a lesson about culture. Being an outsider forces a choice: weariness or persistence. Live in the present. Or romanticize that escaped place. Escoffery has penned not just a story collection, but a social document, about how for some America is a soft place to land. And how for others it is consistent trauma and turbulence.

Reviewed by Valerie Morales

This review first ran in the September 21, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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