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BOOK REVIEW

A good man is hard to find

A debut fiction collection looks at masculinity and family.

Jonathan Escoffery.cola greenhill-casados

There are no good men in “If I Survive You,” the captivating debut collection of interlinked short stories by Jonathan Escoffery.

There are men who hustle, men who disillusion their women, and men who lie — to themselves as much as others. There are complicated men who collapse under the weight of responsibility, and lost men who want nothing more than to create a place for themselves in an increasingly heavy world.

Violence in late-1970s Jamaica drives Topper and his family to Miami. Sanya, his wife, adapts quickly and easily, rising through the secretarial ranks to become a manager, working hard to raise two boys in a state full of real and metaphorical hurricanes. Topper moves at his own rhythm, and his older son, Delano, takes after him. But, it is his younger son, Trelawny, the only person in their family born in Miami, who anchors Escoffery’s collection.

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Trelawny is a first-generation bookworm who would rather be studying than playing sports-ball or fixing a roof, much to his father’s concern. Trelawny struggles to define himself in a sea of contradictions — he’s not quite American and not quite Jamaican, too light-skinned for the schoolyard and not light-skinned enough to make his girlfriend’s family happy, too educated to get a menial job and too unemployed to find a well-paying one.

Like all the men in “If I Survive You,” Trelawny is running. He runs away from one problem only to run into the arms of another, with a great heart and sense of humor keeping him afloat. Five of the eight short stories follow Trelawny’s misadventures from childhood through middle-age, while the other three focus on Topper, Delano, and their cousin Cukie.

Cukie meets his father for the first time when he’s 13. His mother reveals that the absent man was living in the Florida Keys, only a little bit south of Miami, as she drives Cukie down. “That his father lived within a two-hour drive was not lost on Cukie. … His mother flexed her fingers over the steering wheel, eyes locked on the river of gravel rushing beneath them. ‘Every boy deserves to believe him father is good, but if each father were good, we’d be living a different kind of world, you see me?’”

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Cukie nods in response to his mother’s question, but “his stomach tightened as he barreled toward an answer to the question that haunted his short life: What kind of man abandons his son?”

This question drives much of “If I Survive You.” Fathers die, disappear, and disappoint. Even when they understand and relate to their sons, as Topper does with Delano, no father can prevent the cruelties and injustices of life any more than they can prevent an act of nature.

Miami is a beautiful city, humming with diversity and underscored by international beats; it’s also constantly on the brink of annihilation. As anyone knows who grew up in a region plagued with hurricanes, the wind can bring little apocalypses, a home’s foundation and neighborhood can be washed away overnight.

The setting serves Escoffery’s characters well. There are few places like South Florida in the world, places where immigration, heat, and hurricanes bring out what Trelawny calls the “exquisite, racking compulsion to survive.”

Yet, while “If I Survive You” has a great sense of humor, it reflects little of the joy and pleasure that also define Miami — the food and music and dancing and art and flirtation that make life in the Magic City so thrilling and worthwhile. Even in Delano’s tale, which focuses on the aspiring musician, the narrative lingers on his bad luck and questionable decision-making more than in the happiness he finds in playing music.

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Where Escoffery does reflect joy is in the book’s composition. Escoffery’s sentences push boundaries and create a symphony of language — breaking the rules of writing while showing his mastery of them. Each chapter takes on a different style, and readers may sense they were witnessing the emergence of a master stylist.

Still, while “If I Survive You” dissects masculinity beautifully, it relegates its women to side characters, defined by their husbands and sons, with little to show for their efforts. I’m unsure if this is on the author as much as it is on the men he’s created, who see their wives and mothers as supportive scaffolding rather than as fully realized human beings.

Escoffery doesn’t let his characters off the hook, though. Trelawny suffers for misunderstanding the women in his life, stumbling from one awkward encounter to another. As Trelawny seeks answers to questions about identity, racism, privilege, and love, he betrays the same unwillingness to learn that plagues all the men in his family. “What kind of man abandons his son?” — a deeply flawed one. One who’s too busy trying to survive to be any good.

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“If I Survive You” is a lovely and complicated portrait of masculinity in one Jamaican-American family. Escoffery writes with great care and empathy for his main characters, and in doing so he reveals the richness of feeling that comes with the desire to run away.

IF I SURVIVE YOU

By Jonathan Escoffery

MCD, 272 pages, $27

Adriana E. Ramírez is a writer based in Pittsburgh; she is the author of “Dead Boys: A Memoir.”