Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, October 27, 2022

Thursday, October 27, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The Survivalists

Soft Skull: The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

Soft Skull: The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

Soft Skull: The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

Soft Skull: The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

The Survivalists

by Kashana Cauley

"I don't think there's anything wrong with having a plan," asserts Aretha, the protagonist of Kashana Cauley's captivating and wholly original debut novel, The Survivalists. Those words weave and bind their way through the story and take on new, imaginative and often darkly comic meaning with each passing chapter. The Survivalists welcomes readers into a world that many may not have known existed but will want more of by the time the last page is read--the world of the young, Black, urban prepper. A prepper, or survivalist, is someone who prepares for cataclysmic disasters by creating a plan and stockpiling resources, and this novel provides an immersive experience into the lifestyle.

The main character of the novel, Aretha, is a young Black lawyer on the fast track up the corporate ladder. She is living her dream--chasing after success--or so she thinks, until she meets charming coffee-entrepreneur and brownstone-owning Aaron. Of course, there's a slight catch, as Aaron also embraces the rather unconventional life of a doomsday prepper, along with all of the illegal-gun-stockpiling, bunker-building and optimized soy protein-eating that it entails.

However, their connection is very real--even from their first date, when "the conversation shifted, allowing her to feel the warm glow of interrupting her sometimes lonely lifestyle to temporarily entertain living some other way"--and Aretha and Aaron soon fall for each other, with the city of Brooklyn acting as the perfect backdrop to their budding relationship. Cauley is very skilled at setting the scene and showcasing their urban environment, with evocative descriptions of life in the city for two young people in love: "They walked east to one of the Trini food stands of Bed-Stuy, bet each other on how much scotch bonnet pepper sauce they could stand to put in their doubles and walked home under the spell of their pulsating mouths." With such tender scenes of absolute, liberating bliss and belonging, it is no wonder that, despite the misgivings of one of her closest friends, Aretha soon moves in with Aaron and his prepper roommates.

What follows is a darkly humorous, sometimes tense, sequence of events that examines the many ways in which lives can go wrong. Nothing is off-limits: love, friendship, the housing market and the politics of gun ownership, to name a few. Most importantly, The Survivalists explores the myth of the American Dream and the teetering definition of success within a system that is designed to accept all sacrifices without coming through with the implied rewards. These feelings of disenfranchisement and abandonment (several characters experienced the trauma of Hurricane Sandy) explain the lure of the prepper world: "The community had all the people who'd been kicked out of polite society... or at least had the good sense to reject it on nights and weekends."

As her professional life falls apart around her, Aretha throws herself into this new world in which she finds herself, questioning her own code of morality while alienating longtime friends. The action culminates when she finds herself in a situation that is incredibly far removed from her very recent past life--selling guns illegally. The resolution of the many various conflicts is creative and unexpected and will not disappoint readers.

Cauley's previous life as a corporate lawyer and experience as a television comedy writer (for such shows as the The Great North on Fox and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah) do much to add nuance and insight to the story. The descriptions of Aretha's life as a lawyer are filled with insider nods that are rich with intimate details, such as this observation by Aretha as she walks through her office: "Wave to the deal lawyers and the tax lawyers all the way down to her office in litigation, a medium-sized square that signaled her place in the middle of the associate ranks." Additionally, Cauley's witty and empathetic treatment of the prepper community humanizes a group that is often misunderstood and ostracized in society and tells their story in a relatable way.

The Survivalists tackles race and class relations, privilege and politics but is, at its heart, a story about survival--for preppers and non-preppers alike. With great nuance and raw honesty, it questions what "survival" means for today's generation, facing racial injustice, climate change, a global pandemic and the depressing realization that, no matter how hard they work, most of them will not be able to own their own homes. What does survival look like for a young Black woman, whose dreams of corporate success are unraveling rapidly before her, in a society that never fully accepts her?

Laced with elements of crime, palpable suspense, witty banter and fascinating characters, The Survivalists will appeal to readers of many genres. Kashana Cauley, an insightfully sharp writer, has written a novel that will entertain, captivate and stimulate thoughtful discussion. --Grace Rajendran

Soft Skull, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9781593767273, January 10, 2023

Soft Skull: The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

Kashana Cauley: Another Side of Our Society

(photo: Mindy Tucker)

Kashana Cauley is a writer and former Manhattan lawyer currently living in California. She writes for the Fox comedy The Great North and has written for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and HBO's Pod Save America. She is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and GQ. Her debut novel, The Survivalists (Soft Skull, January 10, 2023), explores the experiences of a group of Black urban preppers living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Survivalists is set in a world that's not often seen in literature: that of young, urban Black doomsday preppers. What was your inspiration?

I was inspired by two news stories that I read before I started the book. One of them was a couple in their 20s that was stockpiling guns in the Village, in Manhattan. The other was about a guy who was stockpiling guns a block from where I lived at the time in Brooklyn, above a very fancy ramen restaurant. Both parties were keeping their guns in neighborhoods not known for either crime or the fear of crime that inspires gun stockpiling, and I couldn't stop wondering why they'd decided to live like survivalists in the city. But the other part of the book's backstory comes from the gun and food stockpiling Black household in Madison, Wisc., that I was raised in. Madison is, for Wisconsinites, extremely urban. Not NYC urban, but there's basically a lot of small Wisconsin towns and five or six cities, and Madison's the second-biggest city. Many of the other survivalist stories I'd read involved people living like this in small towns or the country, but the more I thought about the people who'd stockpiled guns in the city and the way I grew up, the more I wanted to set a survivalist novel in the city. Besides, it's not like fearing the end of the world is something that only happens next to cornfields. 

What are some of the things you discovered in your research of prepper life that intrigued you the most?

The number one thing that always surprises me about the prepper perspective is the unshakeable confidence some preppers seem to have that they will actually survive the end of the world, instead of, say, getting radiated to death by the nukes like everyone else. I tend to sleep soundly at night, sure in my conviction that whatever kills most of us will also understand how to take me out.

Did writing this story lead you to "prep" in your own life?

Yeah. I moved to California in the middle of the getting the book written and sold process, and you're supposed to have an earthquake kit out here, so I prepped a bag for that. But right when Covid first hit, I became one of those people who freaked out about toilet paper shortages, and then there were paper towel shortages, and now we're rolling into an era where I can't find certain types of food all the time. So, I'm not proud of this, but I have a few months of food stored away and a first aid kit and stuff, and, no, not all of it is for earthquakes. It turns out it's really easy to convince yourself of things by spending years writing books about them! While I do tend to assume that I won't survive the big earthquake, I don't mind having stuff on hand in case the San Andreas fault forgets to knock on my door. 

How many soy-protein bars did you taste test in the writing of this novel and are you now a huge fan?

Too many! I'm cheering for the non-perishable food industry to come up with gourmet astronaut food or something else to really dazzle our tastebuds during the end times. 

You bring a lot of warmth, depth and humanity to all of the characters and capture the nuances of race, politics and relationships that so many young Americans find themselves experiencing these days. Why was this story important for you to tell and why now? 

I started writing this book in 2017, during a time when I felt like American society was giving up on a lot of us. I mean, I'm a Black woman, America never meant to fully embrace me, and that's fine, but we had this government that was really comfortable openly pointing out how much some of us didn't belong here, and that correlated with an uptick in hate crimes. People felt more comfortable being racist in public, and me and my non-white friends were talking about how gross and uncomfortable and angry we felt about some of the ways we were being treated. It was also hard to look at the effects of climate change and how much financially worse things were getting for millennials and younger people and not conclude that the American experiment seemed to be going much worse for us than our parents. And then Covid struck. Given the sheer volume of catastrophe present in our era, it felt like the right time to tell a story about a woman who feels that stability is out of reach, and fears that she's unprepared for what that means. 

How much did your own experiences as a lawyer guide the character development of your protagonist, Aretha?

My closest friends from law school are these tough, determined people who questioned everything, and we all used to get together to be as tough and determined and questioning over drinks as we were during the day. I loved that culture, even while recognizing some of its pitfalls, and had an awful lot of fun bringing a heightened version of it to the book.

What writers have influenced your own work? 

I love Percival Everett and Paul Beatty for teaching me that Black people can write comic novels and whatever else we want. I felt less afraid after I was assigned Song of Solomon in high school English. In that novel Toni Morrison showed me it was okay to be Black and Midwestern and not know anything about your family beyond your grandparents' generation, beyond whatever oral tradition filtered down to you, and that even that may be inaccurate! I've been a fan of Gary Shteyngart since his first novel, because I love the chaos and humor he brings to his takes on what being American means. I think Natasha Brown, in her novel Assembly, really blew up the answer to the question of what our Black parents and grandparents wanted us to achieve in majority white societies and whether any of that is worth it. I'm also obsessed with Chantal V. Johnson's debut novel, Post-Traumatic, and demand more novels where cool, yet damaged, people tell a lot of jokes! And my last pick is Samantha Irby, who I love for being Black and Midwestern and ready to entertain. --Grace Rajendran

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