Danielle Evans’ book of eight stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, is long anticipated. Her first story, “Virgins,” was published in the Paris Review and then selected for The Best American Stories 2008. “Virgins” is a quietly devastating tale of two teenage girls navigating the rocky road to adulthood. Bored and loaded with bad choices, the girls go clubbing, and Erica leaves her friend in a risky position while she herself opts for a more benign, but still unsavory, introduction to sex. Written with what readers can now see is Evans’ characteristic insight, humor and craftsmanship, this story is just one of the gems in a polished collection.
Evans takes as her subject people in transition: adolescents, children split between divorced parents, college graduates drifting between partners and jobs. Erica in “Virgins” is a prototype for several of the other young women who appear in these pages—independent but longing for connection, educated but not savvy enough to avoid the hurts of love and life. In “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” the narrator wonders if and how she will be able to move on after an evening spent being purposely cruel to her old lover’s fiancé. In “Jellyfish,” William mulls over his planned move from Harlem to Brooklyn as he runs late to a monthly lunch with his adult daughter, Eva. Waiting in the restaurant, Eva craves her father’s attention but when he finally arrives, full of plans for a new apartment that could accommodate both father and daughter, all he can feel is her resistance.
Evans’ characters are African-American or mixed race. They live in a country where the barriers of race and class may be harder to distinguish than in previous decades, but societal challenges are ever present. Situations may have changed, but perceptions and self-esteem have not.
This is evident in “Harvest,” a story about a group of college girls joking and laughing about ads in the campus paper offering students high prices for human eggs. Though the chatter is light, the girls know that even their middle-class backgrounds and Ivy League educations won’t make their eggs desirable. What seems like a casual evening in the dorm becomes a powerful meditation on race and class, value and commerce. Similarly, in “Snakes,” a biracial girl spends the summer with her disapproving white grandmother whose attempts at scaring her with stories of deadly snakes in the lake leads to a terrible accident and a life-changing lie.
In the final story, “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” brainy high school cheerleader Cee Cee jeopardizes her graduation and college career with an act of senseless vandalism. She is abetted by Geena, a classmate with less academic options but whose popularity and friendship supported Cee Cee through high school. Cee Cee makes a decision in order to save herself, but it is one for which she may end up paying dearly.
Moral ambiguity is explored beautifully in the best of these stories as well as the deeply felt moments of choice and regret. Evans is young to be so wise, but that youth is to the reader’s benefit; she is a writer we hope to be hearing from for a long time.