Aaron actually co-owns the brownstone with Brittany, a formidable Bostonian alienated by her parents but not their assets. Roommate James, a white man from Georgia, was fired from his Washington Post reporting gig for plagiarism. He smells of resentment and peach booze.
The odd trio run their own coffee business out of the brownstone. The bags feature a boy fleeing with a cup of joe in one hand and a shotgun in the other under the caption “Tactical Coffee, why don’t you want to fall asleep during the apocalypse.”
It turns out that the logo is not ironic. Besides a backyard bunker, guns abound and provide literary ammunition for this clever work about being safe in a world riven with issues of race and class, vulnerability and power. Cauley nimbly maneuvers climate change and cutthroat competition in the service of corporate overlords, as well as the continued precariousness of Black House ownership, which is caught up in Aretha’s thoughts about her “cleaner mom and security guard father” and her childhood in Wisconsin.
“There were rules in the town where she grew up, and one of them was that you had to live in a house, even if your parents didn’t have the money for the house and neither did their parents and there weren’t that many people who would sell a house to people who look like you.
That memory and law school debt are enough to make Aretha want the security of partnering. Her best friend, Nia, a gun-savvy therapist, is also initially smitten that Aaron owns a home in New York City.
As for Aaron, his sense of security was altered by Hurricane Sandy, leaving him shaken enough to never be caught unprepared again. Cauley needn’t overstate the fact that Aretha works for a law firm that routinely represents the opposite side of people whose lives have been upended by man-made or natural disasters. There’s Faustian business aplenty here. There is not even a small measure of semantic denial.
“How did you get into survivalism?” Aretha asks Aaron. “You mean preparation,” she replies. A couple of pages later, Aretha thinks to herself, “Not being prepared for disaster was just another name for your [expletive] together?”
With his penchant for long urban walks and his easy-going humor, Aaron is quite the winner. Brittany and James are another matter. When Aaron first met Brittany, he thought of his future business partner: “She was born without a smile and she looked good on her.”
Getting involved with Aaron alienates Aretha from Nia and their Sunday brunches. And things at the office take an unnerving turn when a new partner as experienced as Aretha arrives. The mom—whose name annoys Aretha to no end—threatens her safety at work and hopes for the safety of her partner’s trail.
Soon after Aretha moves out (how could she not? It’s a home!), Aaron begins taking longer and longer trips to meet coffee farmers, which leaves her with frosty Brittany and a scruffy James.
For a brief time, Aretha’s workplace anxieties and James and Brittany’s backyard martial arts practice and other illicit activities run parallel to each other. Then they swerve until they’re impossibly intertwined, and we wonder how Aretha’s going to extricate herself, or if he’ll want to.
Aretha’s conversion to lawlessness may have readers Googling — just as Aretha herself does when she initially uses her skills as a lawyer to control Aaron — “Stockholm Syndrome.” But unlike those plagued Stockholms, Aretha’s moral compass was suspect even before she fell under the influence of the survivors.
Cauley’s book is as comical as it is caffeinated, not just because Aaron knows his way around a Chemex reversal, but because Aretha’s internal monologues, delivered in 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 opinion pieces for GQ, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others. The former antitrust attorney currently lives in Los Angeles, where he writes for the Fox comedy ‘The Great North’ and has written for ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.’
Cauley’s prose is often funny to laugh at, and though a couple of leaps are wonky, the author is wonderfully attuned to the issues of Blackness and how a current generation lives, enjoys and – yes – suffers. When Brittany finally explains the roots of her fear and compares her preparation to that of an iconic abolitionist, her craziness stuns Aretha but is also a little heartbreaking.
In the end, being a survivor is not the same thing as being a survivor. And bunkering in their backyard retreat doesn’t rid the occupants of the Vanderbilt home of all danger.
By Kashana Cauley
Soft Skull Press, 288 pages, $27
Lisa Kennedy has written about film, theater, television and books for The New York Times, The Denver Post, Variety, Watch! magazine, Kirkus and Alta.