Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is a remarkable short-story collection in a good year for short-story collections. Every story takes on its own life, all her characters live rich and complicated lives, and the plotting never grows too predictable or unfocused. Evans has a few of the problems typical of young short-story writers, but for the most part, this is a collection of perfectly conceived little tales that look at underexposed corners of American life.
The biggest issue with Suffocate is that nearly every story features a similar protagonist. Evans writes this protagonist—a young African-American or mixed-race woman who’s trapped between her past and a more promising future—extremely well, but when the first three stories all center on basic variations of the type, it leads to diminishing returns. Evans does feature a handful of stories with different protagonists, including a young man recently returned from Iraq and in over his head with an old girlfriend, but she’s right back to her comfort zone in the next story.
This would be a bigger problem, but the stories’ plots take Evans’ signature character into fascinating new places and relationships, and she’s adroit at creating supporting characters. She has a unique gift for zeroing in on moments of crisis so precise that they illuminate almost all corners of her protagonists’ lives, and her gift for unveiling crucial backstory never lets these tales get too exposition-heavy.
Every story in the collection is a success on one level or another, but the best is “Harvest,” where Evans deals with, among other things, reproductive rights, poor white and black students’ escape routes or lack thereof, and the rift that can open between friends when one is able to seize opportunity and the other isn’t. It’s a huge blend of elements, with tons of exposition to drop, but Evans keeps things moving nimbly along for just under 30 pages, finally reaching an emotionally moving climax that she’s been foreshadowing since the beginning, yet still turns into a surprise.
“Virgins” is the story that brought Evans to early acclaim and next-big-thing praise in literary circles. It leads off the book and mostly lives up to the hype. “The King Of A Vast Empire” perfectly captures what it’s like to be a brother and sister united by grief and misunderstanding, while “Wherever You Go, There You Are” somehow finds new life in the old “friends who should be lovers” story elements.
Nothing Evans does is wildly original, but each of Suffocate’s eight stories announces that she’s found the territory she knows, and marked it out with sophistication and terrific writing. Her sentences stake out claims on the edge of possibility, of things that are almost about to happen, and her stories ring with vivid, unexpected metaphors, as when a close friend’s new fiancée is compared to a crayon drawing. Suffocate wanders over the same territory throughout its length, but Evans knows that territory so well that it doesn’t matter.