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IF I SURVIVE YOU by Jonathan Escoffery Kirkus Star


by Jonathan Escoffery

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2022
ISBN: 978-0-374-60598-8
Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A collection of linked stories focused on one family’s tempest-tossed journeys in Jamaica and Florida.

Escoffery’s sharp and inventive debut largely focuses on Trelawny, the bookish son of Jamaican parents whose place in the world is complex both physically (he’s homeless for a time) and ethnically. In Jamaica, his light-skinned, mixed-race parents feel superior to those with darker skin; growing up in Miami, he’s mistaken as Dominican; in college in the Midwest, he becomes “unquestionably Black.” In the finely tuned opening story, “In Flux,” Trelawny’s efforts to nail down an identity frustrates both himself and others; he’s at the center of a question he has a hard time answering and few others want to face. That uncertainty follows him throughout the book as he squabbles with his father and older brother for their esteem. He’s also forced to take peculiar and/or degrading jobs to make ends meet: He answers Craigslist ads for a woman who wants a black eye and a couple who want a stereotypically Black man to watch them having sex. Not that the rest of his family has it much better—his older brother, Delano, is a struggling musician working on the side in a shady landscape business, and the much-fought-for family home in Miami is sinking through its foundation. (Delano’s thoughts capture the mood of futility: “You try to make a situation better, only to make it worse. Better to do nothing.”) But if Escoffery’s characters are ambivalent, his writing is clever, commanding, and flexible—he’s comfortable in first and second person, standard English and Jamaican patois, Miami ethnic enclaves and white-bread high rises. And he writes thoughtfully about how the exterior forces that have knocked Trelawny’s family sideways—Hurricane Andrew, poverty, racism—intersect with and stoke interior fears and bouts of self-loathing.

A fine debut that looks at the complexities of cultural identity with humor, savvy, and a rich sense of place.