Book Review: ‘The Survivalists,’ by Kashana Cauley – The New York Times
When Aretha meets the roomies — James, a disgraced plagiarist in charge of the house’s security, and Brittany, Aaron’s surly business partner whom Aretha calls “Angry Flo Jo” — she notices they are carrying a gun, adding to her skepticism about the new boyfriend. Upon snooping, she discovers a stockpile of guns and a “metal-walled” bunker filled with blankets and self-defense manuals. But at a time when living rent-free with armed outcasts seems preferable to returning to dating apps, the love-struck Athena moves in and makes her own “go-bag.” According to the crew, “the winning future plan was to give up all the existential weight attached to having a soul.”
One might expect a novel about gun-toting, conspiracy-minded loners to lampoon its key players, but the book succeeds because Cauley appears as curious and empathetic toward the survivalists as she is toward her protagonist. “I lost so many jobs and so many friends who didn’t want to hang out with someone who didn’t have a job,” Brittany says, “so I only have me, and I decided to protect myself.”
Cauley’s prose comes at an accelerated clip that will at times have readers jumping back a few paragraphs to orient themselves. But devoid of pretense or judgment, her writing style reflects Aretha’s ambivalence, and the narrative’s underlying philosophical inquiries: Where’s the line between self-preservation and self-destruction? What’s more chilling: an exploitative culture that lets its citizens literally drown, or the extremes to which individuals will go to protect themselves?
Aaron goes on a succession of coffee-bean-scouting trips abroad, leaving Aretha with the roommates, who cajole her into their own “field trip” to buy illegal guns they later sell. The excitement, juxtaposed with her flailing law career, starts to persuade Aretha on the survivalist lifestyle. “Was it a crime,” Cauley writes, “that after 32 years of following the rules, she wanted to feel something?” The deeper Aretha gets, of course, the wider the crack in her moral compass becomes.
Cauley, a former writer for “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” displays an enviably versatile sense of humor. (She is also a former contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.) The novel is most fun when her wit bolsters the narrative’s sociopolitical underpinnings, as when she describes a “house full of mysterious, unexplainable rich-people” paraphernalia, “like gazebos.”