“It begins with What are you? hollered from the perimeter of your front yard when you’re nine,” Jonathan Escoffery writes at the start of the first short story in his compelling debut collection, “If I Survive You.”
It’s the question at the core of the book, its eight stories linking to form a sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, sometimes wrenching novel about a Jamaican family in Miami.
That 9-year-old, Trelawney, is the tale’s main character, although some of the stories focus on other characters’ points of view. The first story, “In Flux,” flows from that question of identity. Trelawney’s parents, Topper and Sanya, and his brother, Delano, fled Jamaica during political violence in the 1970s, bringing with them the island nation’s culture and language.
But Trelawney was born in Miami (where Escoffery also grew up), and he’s never sure where he fits in, even at home, where his parents say he talks “like a real Yankee” — that is, with an American accent.
In the wider world, as he grows up, light-skinned Trelawney discovers he’s not only too American to be Jamaican but too Jamaican to be American, too white to be black, too black to be white; when, at a new school, he tries to pass as Hispanic, he’s disgraced when his new friends find out he doesn’t speak Spanish.
Those questions of racial and cultural identity run throughout the stories, as does Trelawney’s struggle with his identity within his family. From childhood he craves his father’s attention, but Delano, handsome and confident, is closer to their dad, right down to inheriting his striking blue eyes.
Like many other Miami stories set in the 1990s, “If I Survive You” is haunted by Hurricane Andrew, which flattened southeast Florida in 1992. None of the stories describe the storm’s landfall directly, but Trelawney and his family survive it, their home in Cutler Bay left roofless and ruined.
Topper, who works as a contractor, is determined to rebuild, and he and Delano do just that. But as the house comes back together, the family crumbles. When Topper and Sanya divorce, she insists Topper choose one son to live with him, and he chooses Delano.
Delano goes into the construction business with his dad; Trelawney goes to college and gets a degree in creative writing in 2009. He tells the reader, “The forty-thousand-dollars-a-year entry-level positions I’d been promised all my life no longer existed post-recession, and even the lowliest jobs wanted five-plus years of experience. I graduated with a 4.0 and couldn’t get an interview for an unpaid internship.”
Some of the strategies he undertakes to survive are detailed in the story “Odd Jobs,” like answering a Craigslist ad from a woman who wants to hire someone to punch her in the face “for a photo project but i also want to see what it feels like.”
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In “Independent Living,” Trelawney has a job at an assisted living facility, conducting interviews and crunching numbers to figure out how much the property owners can raise the rents of the residents.
He doesn’t like doing it, but he’s so broke himself he’s living in his car. If he can raise enough rents, he’ll get a promotion and be able to “rent my own apartment; I could live like a fully formed twenty-first-century North American human. I need this.”
One resident eludes his attempts to interview him. Carlos Rodriguez, who lives with his nearly catatonic wife, is “always running,” and Trelawney suspects he has a job he’s not reporting.
He’s distracted, though, after another resident jumps off the roof and the resulting vacancy unleashes a wave of competitors for the apartment. All of that will lead to why Carlos is always running — and to an unusual love story.
Some of the stories focus on Delano, who, despite being his father’s favorite, has problems of his own with marriage, fatherhood, running his own business and trying to get a musical career off the ground. The title of one of those stories sums it up: “If He Suspected He’d Get Someone Killed This Morning, Delano Would Never Leave His Couch.”
The title story, the final one in the book, brings the brothers together. After many years, they’re both living again in the house once ravaged by Andrew, but it’s no happy reunion. Topper still owns the place; Delano is a couple of years behind on his share of the rent, while Trelawney finally has a job that lets him pay his part.
Topper, ever the troublemaking father, offers to sell the house to Trelawney at the same time that Delano decides to evict his brother. Despite the fact that the house is in shambles — it’s actually sinking into the ground, a crack in its exterior disguised by a birdhouse — Trelawney goes to extraordinary ends to try to scrape up the money to buy it. He might not get the house, but after a fashion he gets his family back.
Escoffery’s writing is lively and engaging, his stories well crafted, and he’s insightful and witty about Miami’s multiracial, multicultural, multilingual population. “If I Survive You” is a most promising debut.
If I Survive You
By Jonathan Escoffery
MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pages, $27