James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that always manages to surprise me because it just works. There is, of course, tremendous style and skill in the execution. But there is nothing ostentatious: no cheap jumps or surprises, no shifts in voice, no postmodern irruptions by the writer. “Sonny’s Blues” is simply an intense story with high stakes. Sonny will either manage to live in this world or, in his great desperation and pain, fall to heroin. This life or death conflict lies naked on the page, so that every word, spoken and narrated, must either point to it or pointedly talk around it, each word advancing the cause of one or the other outcome. Because there is no gimmick to it, because there is honesty and bluntness in the telling of the story, Baldwin is able to rest the world on Sonny’s shoulders. As the story goes on, Baldwin returns again and again to the pronoun “we” and to apocalyptic metaphor. A story about a man convincingly becomes a story about a nation, and a story about human beings. It is not only Sonny’s fate that remains undecided at the end of the story; the apocalyptic “cup of trembling” that sits at the top of Sonny’s piano in the final sentence is meant for all of us.
The stories in Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are built on the model of “Sonny’s Blues”. There is no trick to these stories, only brute intensity. These are stories about people, particularly women, who have suffered terribly, who stand on the precipice, and who implicate us in what has happened to them and in what they intend to do. These are women whose desperation to be heard and to be loved drives them to feel with a terrifying, violent intensity. They remind me of Dorcas, from Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a “girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made [her lover] so sad and so happy that he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” They expect nothing and somehow get less; they know better than to get their hopes up about anything. Parents forget to pay the electric bill and the lights get cut. They abandon their children in the house, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll return: “Liddie and I sat in our pajamas, alone, staring at the tree that wouldn’t light up. When our parents returned hours later with pizza and Chinese food and flashlights and candles, we exhaled breath we didn’t even know we’d been holding and ate cold food in the dark silence.” When the protagonist of “Virgins” loses her virginity, her ambivalence speaks for every other character in the collection: “I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better.”
Evans also shares Baldwin’s talent for dialogue: both writers know well what lies are hidden behind every word. A character in “Jellyfish,” upon receiving a self-serving offer from her father, slips up and says “That’s wonderful for you,” instead of “That’s wonderful of you.” Despite her best intentions, the mistaken preposition and the greeting-card formality of her response reveals exactly what she thinks about the matter. The same story features this expert piece of dialogue:
“You sound like me the week after you left me the first time,” said Cheese. “I thought every woman walking beneath the window was you.”
“Well,” said Eva. “Here I am.”
Eva responds, but doesn’t really respond; that might make her vulnerable. It is typical of most communication in the collection, sensitive negotiations conducted between two hostile parties rather than any sort of genuine exchange. Characters seize on key phrases, remember them exactly, and quote them ad nauseum, as if they were valuable bargaining chips: “Anyway, he told me once that love was not a real thing because it was comprised of too many subsidiary emotions.” Dialogue, for Evans’ characters, is war by other means.
Evans is smart enough to know that suffering only very rarely makes you a better person. These characters are capable of staggering cruelties. The protagonist of “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” meeting the fiance of her ex-boyfriend, Brian, for the first time, is responsible for this exchange:
“To death and divorce, then,” he says, “which are forever.”
“And marriage,” I say, clinking my drink to his and nodding at Brian, “Which is not.”
I let out a hushed oath when I read that passage for the first time, as if the characters were sitting right next to me in a crowded restaurant and I was afraid of being overheard. I honestly felt, to my own surprise, scandalized. You know these characters shouldn’t get a pass for their behavior, but you don’t quite blame them for it either. They know a certain pitiless brutality to be an immutable truth of life. Tara, of “Snakes,” puts it nicely: “I felt like somebody ought to stop me from walking out, like there was a rule that you couldn’t leave behind such palatable need.” But, as she well knows, there isn’t. So she does walk out.
Evans’ collection, however, is all about attending to that palatable need. Like Baldwin and Morrison, Evans belongs to the branch of black literary humanism that, simply by recognizing its characters as people, carries with it an implicit social mission. These stories are written with such detail and attention that it sometimes feels like a personal letter, written by one black woman for another, by one loving person for another. It feels necessary. Somebody should tell these women that they are not alone and that they matter.
What makes this collection great is that moral mission, the way that the collection serves as a testament to the value of the individuals whose stories it tells. Race is here, of course. Race cannot help but be here, in every tiny crack and crevice, tainting everything from sunscreen to school pranks. Race cuts and bruises and scars the characters of this collection. But beyond their intricate filigrees of defensiveness, beyond the ways that others insist on seeing them, the characters of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are people. They want those awfully basic things that can be expressed in simple, declarative thrusts: I want to be loved, I want your love, I want a real family. These primary human dramas are what ultimately drive the stories in the collection, and the need in these stories is so obvious and strong that it levels the heart. Such an insistent demand for love should be heard; it is worthy of being chronicled in books. There isn’t a rule that you can’t leave behind such palatable need, of course. We know this. But the gap between what we know and what we think should be is the place from which great literature often emerges. There isn’t such a rule, but as Danielle Evans persuasively argues, there ought to be.