“The Survivalists”, Kashana Cauley’s Sharp and Witty Book Debut

In today’s America, what constitutes success? What are the obstacles to achieving this? How do race, class, age, and location affect the odds?

These very serious questions are addressed with biting wit that makes you laugh survivalists, Kashana Cauley’s smart, sharp debut novel. Cauley transports us to the overpriced real estate and marginal residents of hipster Brooklyn, seen through the wide-eyed and increasingly exhausted heart of the protagonist, Aretha. Despite her adherence to the American startup story, when we meet the 30-something black lawyer, Aretha’s chances for success — professional, financial, romantic, familial — seem to be slipping out of her hands.

“Aretha stood in front of her dresser, waiting for something in her wardrobe to prove herself to the existential challenge of her third first date in a week.” Like the novel itself, its clever, satirical opening sentence is exactly in keeping with the era in which the novel and its characters were born. Cauley’s comedic and literary details made this reader laugh at the self-serving, oh-so-modern ridiculousness of her characters, and then fail the mirror test. Wait a minute. That is me.

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And you, maybe. Who among us would not consciously nod at such a well-crafted, emotionally astute sentence as this one: “Loneliness had a noise, a hum like a running refrigerator settled in her head and intensified when she saw happy couples on the street or in restaurants, looking at each other with something she’s never felt for anyone.”

Like many urban professional women, the eternally single Aretha keeps her loneliness at bay by partnering with her best friend. Nia is the one with whom Aretha shares weekly snacks and bitch sessions at “their” booth in “their” diner; Nia whose approval Aretha seeks; The Nia with which Aretha sewed a warm quilt of confessionals and comforting rituals: the kind of survival meant to satisfy the human need for deep, lasting connection in a cold, Internet-filled world.

Then Aretha meets the lanky, lanky, enterprising but laid-back Aaron. Despite (or perhaps because of) the irony of their attraction—Aretha’s law firm spends most of its time and makes most of its money denying the claims of Hurricane Sandy victims like Aaron, who lost his Greenwich Village apartment, and everything in it, to the flood—Aretha is captivated. As she begins to shed her cynicism, feeling that she’s “becoming less than a clenched fist posing as a person,” we cheer for our girl’s blossoming self-awareness and vulnerability.

As new love usually does, Aretha’s relationship with Aaron stirs and elevates her life. After avoiding her former number one, Aretha finally joins Nija for breakfast, matching her best friend’s possessive skepticism. During cross-examination, Aretha admits that Aaron owns a company called Tactical Coffee.

Of course, Nia is anything but supportive. “Is he the guy whose coffee has a gun on the bag,” she asks, “and the bag says something crazy?”

He really is. “Something crazy” is “Tactical coffee, because you don’t want to fall asleep during the apocalypse”. Despite her own wariness of Aaron’s roommates struggling to survive, Aretha moves into a stately Brooklyn stone house where Aaron roasts coffee and his roommates collect guns and cans of pea soup. When Aaron leaves the country on the first of many bean-buying stints, Aretha goes snooping, facing her fears of what she might find. Her mission uncovers an arsenal in the house and, under the Astroturf backyard, a well-stocked, well-armed bunker built for four.

In order to maintain her otherwise perfect new relationship, and insert Aaron into the role of husband she’s been desperately trying to fill, Aretha will have to separate him from the madness of his roommates and their armory. But before she can say “disaster preparedness,” Aretha finds herself in the back seat of the guns. Then another one. Even worse, he looks forward to those secret nocturnal forays into the bowels of New York’s neighborhoods. While her job is threatened by a diabolical new employee, and her boyfriend is increasingly absent, Aretha justifies capitulation in the face of survival. “Was it a crime that after thirty-two years of following the rules she wanted to feel something?”

As Aretha changes, so does the novel, from a sweet love story about a young lawyer who aspires to a professional and romantic partnership to an age-old cautionary tale about an otherwise brilliant woman who pretends to be crazy about a man. Captivated by the writing, the relatability of the characters and the tightly executed plot, we can’t look away as Aretha loses everything to love: her career, her home, her best friend, her belief system and, ultimately, herself.

“How did she become a person who was OK with any of this? You could turn it off, right?”

wrong Therein lies the problem.

The Survivalists: a novel

The Survivalists: a novel

The Survivalists: a novel

Like Aretha, debut author Kashana Cauley is a former antitrust attorney. Unlike Aretha, Cauley didn’t leave the law because of wrongful gun attacks, but because of a life that juggles her dual talents: comedy and social commentary. Former writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Cauley writes for TV comedies, The New York Times, and other places, including Twitter, where he keeps his 118,000 followers in alternating states of LMAO and SMH.

Reading Survivalists recalls some writerly wisdom Tayari Jones dished out during a reading of her award-winning 2018 novel. American marriage. “Write about people and their problems, not about problems and their people,” Jones told an enthusiastic bookstore crowd. Achieving this feat harder than it sounds is one of the survivalists’ astonishing successes.

In the book’s opening chapters, Cauley brings us so close to her brilliant, caustic, lovable, damaged protagonist that the problems Aretha later faces—in the ruthless corporate-legal world, in her boyfriend, and most of all in herself—are experienced by the reader as Aretha’s. problems, not only as problems of the world. Because these problems are personal to the character we long for, we also ache for the world problems that cause her such despair: the climate crisis that gave Aaron PTSD in the form of a flooded apartment, the misogyny and racism that force Aretha out of the dating group and her law firm, and fear of potential personal, political, and environmental apocalypses that turn Americans into survivalists, down to one.

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