“Money, sucks.” This tersely delivered realization arrives late but also right on time in Kashana Cauley’s fleet and funny debut novel, “The Survivalists,” about Aretha, a Black litigator who is striving to make partner at a New York law firm when she falls for an artisanal coffee roaster named Aaron and moves into the three-story Brooklyn brownstone he owns and shares with two doomsday preppers. He’s kind of one himself.
When Aretha meets Aaron, her parents have been dead for 11 years. They were killed in a car accident involving a deer; the details haunt their only child. So the direction her life is about to take is shaped by residual grief and newfound love. Aaron, too, is an orphan. A transplant from West Texas, he lost his mother to cancer and his father to the great unknown of abandonment.
Aaron actually co-owns the brownstone with Brittany, a formidable Bostonian alienated from her parents but not their resources. Roommate James, a white man from Georgia, was fired from his Washington Post reporting gig for plagiarizing. He smells of ressentiment and peach alcohol.
The odd trio run their coffee business out of the brownstone. The bags feature a guy fleeing with a cup of joe in one hand and a rifle in the other beneath the inscription “Tactical Coffee, because you don’t want to fall asleep during the apocalypse.”
Turns out the logo isn’t ironic. In addition to a backyard bunker, guns abound and provide literary ammunition for this clever work about being secure in a world shot through 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 ongoing precarity of Black homeownership, which is captured in Aretha’s thoughts about her “house cleaner mom and security guard dad” and her childhood in Wisconsin.
“There were rules in the town where she grew up, and one of them was that you were supposed to live in a house, even if your parents didn’t have house money and their parents didn’t either and there weren’t that many people that would sell a house to people who looked like you.”
That memory and law school debt are enough to have Aretha hankering for the security of making partner. Even her best friend, Nia, a therapist alarmed by the guns, is initially impressed that Aaron owns a house in New York City.
As for Aaron, his sense of security was altered by Hurricane Sandy, which left him rattled enough to never be caught unprepared again. Cauley doesn’t need to overstate the fact that Aretha works for a law firm that routinely represents the opposing side to people whose lives have been upended by natural or human-tweaked disasters. There are Faustian bargains aplenty here. There is also no small measure of semantic denialism.
“How’d you get into survivalism?” Aretha asks Aaron. “You mean preparedness,” he replies. A couple pages later, Aretha thinks to herself: “Wasn’t being ready for disaster just another name for having your [expletive] together?”
With his fondness for long urban walks and his easy humor, Aaron is pretty winning. 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 it suited her.”
Getting involved with Aaron takes Aretha further away from Nia and their reality-check-please Sunday brunches. And things at the office take an unnerving turn when a new associate just as savvy as Aretha arrives. Mum — whose name annoys Aretha no end — threatens her workplace confidence and hopes for the security of the partner track.
Soon after Aretha moves in (how could she not? It’s a house!), Aaron begins taking increasingly long trips to meet with coffee growers, which leaves her with the frosty Brittany and an unkempt James.
For a brief spell, Aretha’s workplace anxieties and James’s and Brittany’s backyard martial arts drills and more illicit activities run parallel to each other. Then they swerve until they’re impossibly entwined, and we wonder how Aretha will extricate herself, or if she even wants to.
Aretha’s conversion to illegality might have readers googling — much as Aretha herself does when she initially leverages her lawyerly skills to vet Aaron — “Stockholm Syndrome.” But unlike those afflicted by Stockholm, Aretha’s moral compass was suspect even before she came under the survivalists’ sway.
Cauley’s book is as comedic as is it caffeinated — not merely because Aaron knows his way around a Chemex pour-over, but because Aretha’s internal monologues, delivered in a smooth third-person intimate, go a mile a minute.
“The Survivalists” has notes of darkness and a well-balanced acidity that shouldn’t come as a surprise to readers of Cauley’s opinion pieces for GQ, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others. The onetime antitrust attorney currently lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for the Fox comedy “The Great North,” and wrote for “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”
Cauley’s prose is often laugh-out-loud funny, and though a couple of leaps are wobbly, the author is wonderfully attuned to matters of Blackness and the ways a current generation lives, enjoys, and — yes — suffers. When Brittany finally explains the roots of her fear and likens her preparedness to that of an iconic abolitionist, her madness stuns Aretha but is also a little heartbreaking.
In the end, being a survivalist is not the same as being a survivor. And bunkering down in their backyard shelter doesn’t deliver the occupants of the Vanderbilt house from every peril.
By Kashana Cauley
Soft Skull Press, 288 pp., $27
Lisa Kennedy has written on film, theater, television, and books for The New York Times, the Denver Post, Variety, Watch! magazine, Kirkus, and Alta.