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'If I Survive You' is a sweeping portrait of a family's fight to make it in America

Jonathan Escoffery's debut is called If I Survive You, eight interconnected short stories about a Jamaican family living in Florida. The "you" his characters are trying to survive is America itself.

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This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan kicks off the fall season with a review of "If I Survive You" by Jonathan Escoffery. It's the first collection of short stories by a young writer who's already racked up a number of awards for his short fiction that's been published in the Paris Review and other publications. Maureen expects his list of awards to grow. Here's her review of "If I Survive You."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Fall is the season when the publishing industry brings out its big books, the ones mostly written by established authors that are the safest bets to generate excitement and sales. So it's a special year when a debut breaks out of this distinguished pack and takes an early lead for its originality, heart, wit and sweeping social vision. The debut I'm cheering on is called "If I Survive You" by Jonathan Escoffery. And the you his characters are trying to survive is America itself.

"If I Survive You" is composed of eight interconnected short stories about a Jamaican family living in Florida. The parents, Topper and Sanya, fled Jamaica in the 1970s, desperate to escape political violence, and eventually give their two sons, well, everything parents want to give their kids - education, opportunity and a crack at the pursuit of happiness. But the family keeps getting knocked down by racism, the 2008 recession and most literally by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which reduces their house to its skeletal frame.

That's not to say Escoffery's characters are mere victims of fate, as basic as that storm-stripped house of theirs. They themselves have plenty of agency to hurt, love, betray, and simply misunderstand each other. And their house, by the way, was no showplace pre-Hurricane. Here, to give you a taste of Escoffery's boisterous, snappy style are some passages from a story called "Pestilence" in which younger son Trelawney describes his childhood home.

(Reading) The first and only plot of American soil my parents purchased together was plagued, as was the house they built atop it. The millipedes blackened our front steps, made mom tap dance from car to welcome mat. They crept up pipes, bursting from bath drains at our most vulnerable moments. 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 aquarium as though the tank's water had been set to boil. Maybe no pets for a while, Mom said, guarding her mouth with her palm. Trelawney is the sensitive, American-born son, a puzzle to his frustrated father and tougher older brother, and thus the natural narrator of many of these stories.

In the opening story, called "In Flux" - a family chronicle in miniature - Trelawney tries to figure out the answer to the elemental question that he's been asked from childhood through adulthood. That question is, what are you? In Jamaica, his middle-class, brown-complexioned parents didn't consider themselves Black. When Trelawney asks his mother, she shuts him down. I was never asked such stupidness before coming to this country. If someone asks you, tell them you're a little of this and a little of that, which is a true but inadequate answer because as Trelawney looking back on his younger self reflects, race has descended upon your world, sudden and grating. And what you fear most is that others recognize in you something that you've yet to grasp. The stories here move forward in time, but keep returning to key moments, especially the party where Trelawney's father called him a vile name, thus propelling him into months of homelessness.

In a standout story called "Splashdown," another riff on the overarching theme of father-son relationships gone wrong, we hear about Trelawney's 13-year-old cousin, Cukie, who lives for a summer with the father, nicknamed Ox, who abandoned him shortly after birth. Ox, we're told, lives on the hem of the Atlantic, piloting yachts, setting traps for lobsters on the ocean floor and doing other, more unscrupulous work. Cukie says his father's vague stories about his past are filled with uncontextualized brutality. Years later, when the unemployed Cukie himself becomes a new father, he searches out Ox for a job. After all, even a lousy father should provide some kind of safety net, right? I have to say, when I read the final scene of "Splashdown," my overwhelmed response was that not since Moby Dick has the all-American ethos of sink or swim on your own been dramatized to such devastating effect. "If I Survive You" is an extraordinary debut collection, an intensively granular, yet panoramic depiction of what it's like to try to make it or not in this kaleidoscopic madhouse of a country.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the debut short story collection "If I Survive You," by Jonathan Escoffery. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new satirical comedy "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul." This is FRESH AIR.


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