The flame that burns brightly on the colorful cover of Jonathan Escoffery’s debut is an appropriate image, because If I Survive You is a blazing success. With a profoundly authentic vision of family dynamics and racism in America, this collection of connected stories explores the young adulthood of a character named Trelawny, whose parents fled political violence in Jamaica only to face hard luck in Miami.
These eight stories (all except one were previously published) are completely immersive, humorous yet heartbreaking. The first, “In Flux,” sets the stage well, describing Trelawny’s 1980s childhood and his tortured, complex search for clarity about his identity. The questions are invasive: “What are you?” people ask him, and he turns to his mother, wondering, “Are we Black?” His confusion at school is loaded with cynical truths, such as his take on his fifth grade lessons about the history of slavery in the United States: “It’s: Mostly good people made a big mistake. It’s: That was a long, long time ago. It’s: Honest Abe and Harriet Tubman and M.L.K fixed all that nasty business. It’s: Now we don’t see race.“
Sixth grade brings disaster: “A hurricane named Andrew pops your house’s roof open, peeling it back like the lid of a Campbell’s soup can, pouring a fraction of the Atlantic into your bedroom, living room—everywhere—bloating carpet, drywall, and fiberboard with sopping sea salt corrosion.” After the hurricane, Trelawny’s family rips apart, with his older brother and father moving out together. This parting is further explored in “Under the Ackee Tree,” a story told from the perspective of Trelawny’s father that was previously published in The Paris Review and included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2020. Trelawny’s brother, Delano, who longs to be a musician, shines in his own story set on the eve of Hurricane Irene, titled “If He Suspected He’d Get Someone Killed This Morning, Delano Would Never Leave His Couch.”
Hoping to be a writer, Trelawny goes to college in the frigid Midwest, only to find himself back in Miami amid the Great Recession, living out of his SUV and scrambling for work. As Trelawny notes, he “had faithfully followed the upward mobility playbook, only to wind up an extraordinary failure.” This quest is at the center of a trio of riveting, memorable and surprising stories: “Odd Jobs,” “Independent Living” and the exquisite titular tale.
Escoffery brings an imaginative, fresh voice to his deep exploration of what it means to be a man, son, brother, father and nonwhite immigrant in America. As Trelawny notes, “If I don’t create characters who look like me, who will? Visibility is important. Otherwise, it’s as if we don’t exist.”