Pay As You Go, by Eskor David Johnson
(McSweeney’s, ISBN: 9781952119743, 500 pp)

Housing is potentially the defining issue of the millennial generation. Just look it up on the net. Online sites are awash with articles like “The millennial generation housing crisis” or “Millennials facing housing calamity” or, memorably at the HuffPost, “Millennials are screwed”.  To be a millennial is to experience a version of life that has overpromised and underdelivered. The generation that was supposed to be buoyed by technology and born to a stable world at peace is instead dissatisfied, disconnected, poorer than previous generations, and failed by everyone from parents to warmongering politicians. Social media is spiking levels of anxiety. Climate change is wreaking havoc on the planet. Governments are failing. Jobs are hard to come by and when you do get one it’s demanding and soulless. And there’s, simply, nowhere to live.

Trinidadian author Eskor David Johnson begins his debut novel Pay As You Go with the protagonist Slide complaining about his living situation, “My first apartment in Polis, it was shit … the toilet isn’t flushing properly… The windows are dusty… It’s like the sky’s never blue when I look out any of these windows—they’re filtering out all the hope.” Slide is an immigrant to the fictional city of Polis with dreams of a better life, suffering from all the typical millennial afflictions. He’s living in a crap apartment with a passive-aggressive roommate. He’s working as a junior barber in a shop where the two senior barbers mock his cuts and give him the only chair without a ceiling fan. He’s terrorized by preteen toughs trying to determine which gang he represents. And in the blistering heat, there’s a severe water shortage. But Slide is not a man to suffer silently. “Who had organized all this?” he asks, “Where was the planning? There was no planning.” It’s telling that none of the many characters Slide meets ever believes that the government or any authority figure will help with their myriad of problems. The novel does feature soldiers, a cruel and vindictive representative of the Compliance in Practice Board, and vague references to “municipal buildings” and “an unpopular politician… who had gone back on promises” and kissed babies only to give them a cold. But the government itself is shadowy and vague, best described as Them, in a novel that can be summarized as the story of Us versus Them.

Calumet, a character whose backstory galvanizes Slide as he embarks on his hero’s quest, ends his epic tale by saying, “That is how they treat you Slide… You empty your veins for them and they say, Get a mop you are staining the upholstery.” In this novel “they” encompasses everyone from Calumet’s wealthy ex-lover, to shady landlords, from violent gangsters, to dishonest financial institutions, from the general public, to the wealthy inhabitants of Point James whose lives are punctuated by yacht cruises and polo matches. “They” are an apathetic, nebulous entity who keep “us” down.

Slide belongs to several different us-es as he traverses the cityscape. At the start of his quest, he declares, “The mission would be this: I was to go into Polis and find a place to live. Not just any somewhere to eat sleep defecate and wait for the Reaper in a grim carousel of repeating days, mind you, but to live.” Slide ping pongs around Polis on his eccentric odyssey. Like Odysseus, even when the possibility of home seems to be within reach, it is yanked away as Slide becomes embroiled in progressively more madcap and dangerous adventures that eventually leave him totally adrift: “Hope had abandoned the sinking ship of my heart. Rock bottom was above me. My friends, I was running out of effort.”


Like Odysseus, even when the possibility of home seems to be within reach, it is yanked away as Slide becomes embroiled in progressively more madcap and dangerous adventures

Even as Slide sits at the center of Johnson’s modern day Odyssey, each character is allowed space to tell their story. Calumet is the first of many storytellers Slide encounters as character after character tells Slide how “they” tried to keep that character down. In his author acknowledgements, Johnson writes, “Growing up in Trinidad, we quickly learn to not waste an audience’s time when telling a story.” With his novel clocking in at a chunky five hundred words, it would be tempting to ask if this length can really mean that the reader’s time is never wasted. Did we really have to hear the story of the aspiring boxer whose dreams were crushed by incarceration? The hotshot real estate agent who lost the use of his legs? The Don Corleone-esque Peter Napakakos, complete with a turtle where Don Corelone had a cat? None of these are main characters and they all disappear from the text long before the end. Even looters are allowed to tell their tales. When one looter robs a store after a natural disaster, he says, “I have been struck more times than I have cheeks left to turn. Must I count for you the days I entered these shops only to be greeted by a detective on my heels? What kind of a fool would I be to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs?”

Is there a thematic connection between these stories? Or is Johnson simply emphasing the fact that we all have our own stories and are entitled to tell our tale? The looter’s statement could very well be Johnson’s answer to any critique about the novel’s length. His is a story about storytelling. Each story of the way “they” keep “us” down is part of a larger story of systemic failure in a world where the system is rigged against “us”. Looters, swindlers, and murders are given voice because they are not mere criminals but people trying to survive, who deserve a chance to explain their choices. And their collective stories seem to say that the only way to get ahead in this dog-eat-dog world is to jettison your morals.

In another author’s hands, the story of so many failures and cruelties might result in misery porn. Yet, Pay As You Go is buoyed by Slide’s – and Johnson’s – effervescent humor. Both narrator and author love language and no situation is so dire that it cannot also be funny. The constellation of quotes in this article show that even at rock bottom Slide can turn a phrase like no one else. “It’s not supposed to be a career, chasing your dreams, it’s supposed to be temporary,” he rants at his lowest. “DREAM WITHIN YOUR BUDGET, that could have been a warning. Or here’s another one, REACH FOR THE STARS, BUT STOP WHEN YOUR ARM HURTS.”

Slide’s words will resonate strongly with millennials, many of whom may feel he is speaking directly to us, and with anyone who ever felt as if they were on the wrong end of the “us against them” phenomenon. Yet, this novel is not set in the present but in a near future that often feels more contemporary than dystopian. The housing crisis, the widening wealth gap, the devastating natural disasters, the governmental failures, the reach and rage of the Internet, they are all here, just with the brightness turned up a little. It may be tempting to look at Slide’s life and think how ridiculous, but it’s not that far removed from the life that many of us lead. By letting Slide immigrate to Polis instead of New York or any other recognizable metropolis, Johnson puts a new sheen on problems that have been endlessly rehashed. He’s in conversation with Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own and Matthew Desmond in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and every millennial who ever posted a meme about waiting for the housing market to crash so we can buy a house, but he’s also in his own invented world, which allows him to tell an old story in a fresh, dynamic way. Indeed, a novel by a Trinidadian writer in which the central character embarks on a quest to find a home seems most obviously in conversation with the work of one of Trinidad’s most famous sons: A House for Mr Biswas by Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. Yet, instead of going for the obvious Naipaul epigraph, Johnson chooses quotes from Francis I of France and American rapper Nas. Pay As You Go differs from the recent explosion of Trinidadian literature in that it is, ostensibly, not about Trinidad or even the Caribbean.

In the end, the novel is a kind of millennial calypso.

Or is it? Being a writer from a small region like the Caribbean can be its own form of “us against them”, where authors battle for the right to be heard and to tell authentic stories. And Johnson is certainly being heard; Pay As You Go heralds the coming of a razor sharp new voice in fiction; it was recently shortlisted for The Center for Fiction 2023 First Novel Prize and has garnered rave reviews from trade magazines like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. While Johnson’s immense story is not set in the Caribbean, he positions himself firmly within a Caribbean “us”: the author’s brief  biography reads, “Eskor David Johnson is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. He currently lives in New York City.” Trinidadians are mentioned once in passing in the main text, where they crank up calypsos. As fans of the artform know, calypsos are famous for skewering topical issues with wordplay, mockery, and wit. In the end, the novel is a kind of millennial calypso. Slide’s quest for a place to live in the fictional Polis is the quest of the millennial generation. It has been the quest of all of “us” since man built settlements, colonial and otherwise; it’s at the heart of the cliché about not just wanting a house but wanting a home. Slide asks a universal question: can I keep going in the face of all this awfulness? He falls down but, always, he gets back up.



Breanne Mc Ivor is a Trinidadian writer. Her debut novel, The God of Good Looks, was published in 2023.


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