“The Survivalists”, the debut book Sharp and Witty by Kashana Cauley

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

These seriously serious questions are addressed with ferocious, lol-inducing wit The survivors, Kashana Cauley’s intelligent and edgy debut novel. Cauley transports us to the expensive real estate and fringe residents of hipster Brooklyn, seen through the wide-eyed and increasingly weary heart of protagonist Aretha. Despite her adherence to the story of American bootstrapping, when we meet the 30-year-old black lawyer, Aretha’s chances of success-professional, financial, romantic, family-seem to get out of hand.

“Aretha stood at her dresser, waiting for something in her wardrobe to declare itself up to the existential challenge of her third first date in a week.” Like the novel itself, its clever and satirical opening line is perfect for the era in which the novel and its characters were born. Cauley’s comedic and literary chops had this reader laughing at the selfish and fashionable ridiculousness of his characters, only to fail the mirror test. Wait a minute. It’s me.

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And you, maybe. Who among us wouldn’t knowingly nod at such a well-crafted and emotionally astute sentence as this: “Loneliness had a noise, a humming sound like a running refrigerator had lodged right in his head that intensified when he saw happy couples up the road.” street or in restaurants, looking at each other with something he had never felt for anyone.

Like many urban professional women, perpetually single Aretha keeps her loneliness at bay by partnering for life with her best friend. It’s Nia with whom Aretha shares weekly brunch ‘n’ bitch sessions at “their” booth in “their” restaurant; Nia whose approval Aretha seeks; Nia with which Aretha has stitched a warm quilt of revelatory confessions and soothing rituals—the kind of survivalist intended to satisfy the human need for deep, lasting connection in a cold, fast-paced world of the internet.

Then Aretha meets Aaron, lean, lanky, resourceful but relaxed. 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 her Greenwich Village apartment, and everything in it, to the flood — Aretha is infatuated. As she begins to shed her cynicism about her, feeling she’s “becoming a lot less of a clenched fist posing as a person,” we root for our girl’s burgeoning self-awareness and vulnerability.

As new love tends to do, Aretha’s relationship with Aaron upends and improves her life. After avoiding her former number one, Aretha finally joins Nia for brunch, bracing herself for her best friend’s possessive skepticism. Under cross-examination, Aretha confesses that Aaron owns a business called Tactical Coffee.

Sure enough, Nia is far from supportive. “Is he the guy whose coffee has the gun on his purse,” she asks, “and the purse says something crazy?”

It really is. The “something crazy” is “Tactical coffee, why don’t you want to fall asleep during the apocalypse”. Despite her own wariness of Aaron’s surviving roommates, Aretha moves into stately brownstone Brooklyn where Aaron roasts coffee and her roommates scavenge guns and cans of split pea soup. When Aaron leaves the country for the first of many bean-buying trips, Aretha goes snooping, facing her fears about what she might find. Her mission uncovers a homemade armory and, underneath a piece of Astroturf, a well-equipped and well-armed bunker built for four.

To sustain her new, otherwise perfect relationship and slide Aaron into the role of husband he’s desperately trying to fill, Aretha will have to pull him away from the craziness of his housemates and their arsenal. But before she can say “preparing for disaster,” she Aretha finds herself in the backseat of a shootout. Then another. Worse, she’s looking forward to these stealthy nocturnal forays into the bowels of New York City’s boroughs. With her job threatened by a diabolical new hire and her boyfriend increasingly absent, Aretha justifies the surrender to survivalism. “Was it a crime that after thirty-two years of following the rules, he wanted to prove anything?”

As Aretha transforms, so does the novel, from the sweet romance of a young lawyer who aspires to a professional and romantic partnership to an age-old cautionary tale about an otherwise brilliant woman who becomes utterly silly for a man. Captivated by the writing, the relatability of the characters, and the well-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 someone who was okay with all of this? She could turn it off, right?

Mistaken. Herein lies the problem.

The Survivors: A Novel

The Survivors: A Novel

The Survivors: A Novel

Like Aretha, first time writer Kashana Cauley is a former antitrust lawyer. Unlike Aretha, Cauley left the law not for a lawless gun ring, but for a life she juggles between her two talents: comedy and social commentary. A former writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Cauley writes for television comedies, The New York Times, and other outlets, including Twitter, where he maintains his 118,000 followers in alternate states of LMAO and SMH.

Reading The survivors calls to mind some writing wisdom dispensed by Tayari Jones during a reading of her award-winning 2018 novel An American wedding. “Write about people and their problems, not about problems and their people,” Jones told the rapturous bookstore audience. Accomplishing this feat harder than it seems is one of The survivors astounding successes.

In the book’s opening chapters, Cauley brings us so close to her brilliant, caustic, amiable, and damaged protagonist that the problems Aretha later encounters—in the cutthroat corporate legal world, her boyfriend, and most of all herself—are experienced by the reader. like Aretha’s problems, not just the world’s. Because these issues are personal to a character we grieve for, we also grieve the issues of the world that cause her so much despair: the climate crisis that has inflicted on Aaron PTSD in the form of a flooded apartment, misogyny and the racism that forces Aretha out of both the dating pool and her law firm, and the fear of potential personal, political, and environmental apocalypses that are turning Americans into survivors, one and all.

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