For Kashana Cauley, Doomsday Isn’t So Hypothetical

THE SURVIVALISTS, by Kashana Cauley

Few demographics illustrate the global anxieties of our era better than New Yorkers, who make monumental sacrifices just to hold onto cruddy housing. The perception of scarcity that haunts the American psyche in particular also keeps couples in lousy relationships and employees in mind-numbing jobs. Such desperation can be enough to push even the noblest among us toward choices that would make our better angels weep.

Aretha, the ambitious but grossly underappreciated young lawyer in Kashana Cauley’s lethally witty debut, “The Survivalists,” personifies this sad state of affairs: She languishes in a cycle of first dates with insecure men who lack “the decency to not suck,” and struggles to make partner in a sadistic firm that pits co-workers against one another and devises ways to avoid paying claims to Hurricane Sandy victims.

In walks Aaron, the “oddly sunny” founder of a specialty coffee company (“Tactical Coffee … because you don’t want to fall asleep during the apocalypse”) and owner of a gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone. Traumatized by Sandy’s flooding of his previous apartment and, in Aretha’s words, a fellow “member of the dead parents club” — hers died in a car crash — Aaron captures Aretha’s heart, but there’s a hitch: His “kinda weird” roommates have built a bunker in the yard and are members of a “community” that includes “doomsday preppers” and “regular-ass libertarians.”

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.”

Funny because they’re true, such jabs give the book its verve but also its depth; while these characters’ fears may at first seem absurd, they aren’t unfounded. Violence, a “falling-apart climate” and a precarious job market all work to make daily life increasingly turbulent, and the opportunity to feel effectual in one’s own world slim. Maybe, when pushed to the edge, we find undiscovered parts of ourselves we can use to ensure our emotional survival. Maybe, as Aretha says, these days being prepared for disaster is just having your act together.

Laura Warrell is the author of “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.”

THE SURVIVALISTS | By Kashana Cauley | 288 pp. | Soft Skull Press | $26

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