Discover “The Survivalists,” Kashana Cauley’s Sharp and Witty Debut

kashana cauley
The Survivalists, Kashana Cauley’s DebutAuthor photo: Mindy Tucker


"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below."

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

These oh-so-serious questions are tackled with scathing, lol-inducing wit in The Survivalists, Kashana Cauley’s smart, sharp debut novel. Cauley transports us to the overpriced real estate and marginal residents of hipster Brooklyn, as seen through the wide eyes and increasingly jaded heart of protagonist Aretha. Despite her adherence to the American bootstrapping story, when we meet the 30-something Black attorney, Aretha’s chances of success—professional, financial, romantic, familial—seem to be slipping from her grasp.

“Aretha stood in front of 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 smart, satiric opening line is right on point for the era into which the novel and its characters have been born. Cauley’s comedic and literary chops had this reader guffawing at her characters’ self-serving, oh-so-trendy ridiculousness, then flunking the mirror test. Wait a minute. That’s me.

And you, maybe. Who among us wouldn’t nod knowingly at such a well-crafted, emotionally astute sentence as this: “Loneliness had a noise to it, a hum like a running refrigerator had settled down right inside her head that intensified when she saw happy couples on the street or in restaurants, looking at each other with something she’d never felt for anyone.”

Like many urban professional women, perennially single Aretha keeps her loneliness at bay by life-partnering with her best friend. It’s Nia with whom Aretha shares weekly brunch ’n’ bitch sessions at “their” booth in “their” diner; Nia whose approval Aretha seeks; Nia with whom Aretha has stitched a warm quilt of tell-all confessionals and soothing rituals: the kind of survivalism meant to meet the human need for deep, lasting connection in a chilly, internet-paced world.

Then Aretha meets lean, lanky, entrepreneurial yet laid-back Aaron. Despite (or maybe because of) the irony of their attraction—Aretha’s law firm spends most of its time and earns most of its money denying the claims of Hurricane Sandy victims like Aaron, who lost his Greenwich Village apartment, and everything in it, to the flood—Aretha is besotted. As she starts to shed her cynicism, feeling herself “becoming so much less of a clenched fist posing as a person,” we root for our girl’s blooming self-awareness and vulnerability.

As new love tends to do, Aretha’s relationship with Aaron rattles as well as uplifts her life. After avoiding her former Number One, Aretha finally joins Nia for brunch, girding herself for her bestie’s possessive skepticism. Under cross-examination, Aretha confesses that Aaron owns a business called Tactical Coffee.

Sure enough, Nia is anything but supportive. “Is he the guy whose coffee has the gun on the bag,” she demands, “and the bag says something crazy on it?”

He is indeed. The “something crazy” is “Tactical Coffee, because you don’t want to fall asleep during the apocalypse.” Despite her own wariness about Aaron’s survivalist roommates, Aretha moves into the stately Brooklyn brownstone where Aaron roasts coffee and his roommates collect weapons and cans of split-pea soup. When Aaron leaves the country on the first of many bean-buying sojourns, Aretha goes snooping, facing her fears of what she might find. Her mission uncovers an arsenal in the house, and, beneath a back yard patch of Astroturf, a well-equipped, well-armed bunker built for four.

To sustain her otherwise perfect new relationship, and slip Aaron into the husband role she’s been desperately trying to fill, Aretha will need to pry him away from his roommates’ craziness and their armory. But before she can say “disaster preparedness,” Aretha finds herself in the back seat of a gun run. Then another. Worse, she looks forward to these furtive nighttime forays into the bowels of the New York boroughs. As her job is threatened by a diabolical new hire, and her boyfriend is increasingly absent, Aretha justifies capitulating to survivalism. “Was it a crime that after thirty-two years of following the rules, she wanted to feel something?”

As Aretha turns, so does the novel, from the sweet love story of a young attorney aspiring to professional and romantic partnership to an age-old cautionary tale about an otherwise brilliant woman going full-fool for a man. Captivated by the writing, the characters’ relatability, and the tightly executed plot, we can’t look away as Aretha loses everything for love: her career, her home, her best friend, her belief system, and, ultimately, herself.

“How had she become a person who was OK with any of this? She could turn it off, right?”

Wrong. Therein lies the rub.

<p>The Survivalists: A Novel</p><p>amazon.com</p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1593767277?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10072.a.42362395%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><span class="copyright">amazon.com</span>

The Survivalists: A Novel

amazon.com

Shop Now

amazon.com

Like Aretha, debut novelist Kashana Cauley is a former antitrust lawyer. Unlike Aretha, Cauley left the law not for lawless gun runs but for a life that juggles her twin talents: comedy and social commentary. A former writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Cauley writes for TV comedy shows, The New York Times, and other outlets, including Twitter, where she keeps her 118,000 followers in alternating states of LMAO and SMH.

Reading The Survivalists calls to mind a bit of writing wisdom dispensed by Tayari Jones during a reading from her award-winning 2018 novel An American Marriage. “Write about people and their problems, not problems and their people,” Jones told a rapt bookstore audience. Accomplishing this harder-than-it-sounds feat is one of The Survivalists’ stunning successes.

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

You Might Also Like