Comedic and caffeinated, Kashana Cauley’s debut novel ‘The Survivalists’ might give you the jitters

Aaron actually co-owns the brownstone with Brittany, a fearsome Bostonian who has become estranged from her parents, but not from their resources. Roommate James, a white man from Georgia, was fired from his job as a reporter at the Washington Post for plagiarism. It smells like ressentiment and peach alcohol.

A quirky trio run their brownstone coffee business. The bags show a guy running away with a cup of joe in one hand and a rifle in the other under the caption “Tactical coffee, because you don’t want to fall asleep during the apocalypse.”

Turns out the logo isn’t ironic. Backyard bunkers aside, guns abound and provide the literary ammunition for this clever piece about security in a world riddled with issues of race and class, vulnerability and power. Cauley deftly maneuvers climate change and fierce competition in the service of corporate overlords, as well as the ongoing insecurity of black homeownership, captured in Aretha’s thoughts about her “cleaner mom and security guard dad” and her childhood in Wisconsin.

“There were rules in the town she grew up in, and one of them was that you had to live in a house, even if your parents didn’t have money for a house, and their parents didn’t either, and that wasn’t the case. a lot of people who would sell a house to people who look like you.”

That memory and law school debt are enough to make Aretha long for the security of a partnership. Even her best friend Nia, a gun-obsessed therapist, is at first impressed that Aaron owns a house in New York.

As for Aaron, his sense of security was upended by Hurricane Sandy, which unnerved him enough to never be caught off guard again. Cauley shouldn’t overemphasize the fact that Aretha works for a law firm that routinely represents the opposing side of people whose lives have been turned upside down by natural or man-made disasters. There are plenty of Faustian offerings here. There is no small measure of semantic denial.

“How did you get into survivalism?” Aretha asks Aron. “You mean readiness,” he replies. A few pages later, Aretha thinks to herself, “Wasn’t I prepared for disaster just another name for having your own [expletive] together?”

With his penchant for long city walks and his easy humor, Aaron is quite the conqueror. Brittany and James are a different matter. When Aaron first met Brittany, he thought of his future business partner: “She was born without a smile and it suited her.”

The relationship with Aaron further distances Aretha from Nia and their Sunday lunches for a reality check. And things at the office take an unpleasant turn when a new co-worker arrives who is as smart as Aretha. Mom – whose name annoys Aretha to no end – threatens her confidence at work and hopes for the safety of the partner track.

Soon after Aretha moves in (how could she not? It’s a house!), Aaron begins taking increasingly long trips to meet with coffee farmers, leaving her with icy Brittany and messy James.

In short order, Aretha’s worries at work and James and Brittany’s backyard practice of martial arts and other illicit activities run parallel to each other. Then they veer until they’re impossibly intertwined, and we’re left wondering how Aretha is going to get away with it, or if she even wants to.

Aretha’s conversion to illegality might prompt readers to Google — just as Aretha herself does when she initially uses her lawyering skills to scrutinize Aaron — “Stockholm syndrome.” But unlike those affected by Stockholm, Aretha’s moral compass was questionable even before she came under the survivor’s rule.

Cauley’s book is as comedic as it is caffeinated—not just because Aaron gets his way with Chemex dressing, but because Aretha’s internal monologues, delivered in smooth intimate third person, go a mile a minute.

“The Survivalists” has notes of darkness and a well-balanced acidity that should come as no surprise to readers of Cauley’s articles for GQ, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others. The former antitrust attorney currently lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for the Fox comedy “The Great North” and writes for “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”

Cauley’s prose is often laugh-out-loud funny, and while a few jumps are wobbly, the author is wonderfully attuned to the themes of Blackness and the ways in which the current generation lives, enjoys, and—yes—suffers. When Brittany finally explains the roots of her fear and compares her willingness to that of a legendary abolitionist, her madness astounds Aretha, but it’s also a little heartbreaking.

In the end, being a survivalist is not the same as being a survivor. And bunkering down in their backyard shelter doesn’t absolve the residents of Vanderbilt House from all danger.


Kashana Cauley

Soft Skull Press, 288 pp., $27

Lisa Kennedy has written about film, theater, television and books for The New York Times, Denver Post, Variety, Watch! magazine, Kirkus and Alta.

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