Harper, 2009, 418 pages, C$21.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-089877-9
I don’t laugh at survivalists.
While their threat-assessment algorithms may be out of whack, their basic message of self-reliance isn’t something I’m willing to dismiss easily: Our civilization is far more interdependent that even a generation ago, and I don’t have half the survival skills that my father (skilled wood-worker, outdoorsman, scout leader) or my grandfather (farmer: owned a horse, could slaughter and eat backyard animals) had. Survivalism, correctly applied, is about being prepared and having useful skills. I’m still dead meat on the scale of “who’s most likely to survive the apocalypse”, but I didn’t suffer through the North American ice storm of 1998 and the Northeast Blackout of 2003 without making at least a few contingency plans.
It helps, I suppose, that I’m a Canadian and that our social security net has historically proven pretty effective in case of disaster. Neil Strauss, sadly, doesn’t have that luxury, and as he details during the first third of Emergency, he has spent most of this century’s first decade convincing himself that the end was nigh. What follows is a decade-long personal immersion in the survivalist subculture, where he comes to learn essential survival skills, reassess his life and eventually develop a surprising philosophy of how to best be prepared to survive emergencies.
This isn’t the first of Strauss’ personal journalism efforts. His best-known book so far, The Game, detailed his “penetration” of a not-so-secret subculture of pickup artists. A former music critic and ghost-writer to the stars (Emergency is filled with mentions and cameos of people such as Britney Spears, Tom Cruise and Leonard Cohen), Strauss may have emerged from The Game with a less-than-honourable reputation, but he knows how to write engagingly, and his descent in the survivalist mindset is hilarious to read about: Emergency, despite a somewhat depressing subject and a fairly lengthy narrative, is never less than a joy to read, especially when it charts Strauss’ evolution from a somewhat self-centred writer to a full-fledged member of his community… all thanks to his evolving conception of what it takes to survive the unthinkable.
Emergency may be billed as a book that “will save your life”, but it’s not a how-to manual as much as it’s a reasoned description of the survivalism mindset. It does have a few tips and tricks (many of them entertainingly presented as short comic-book pages illustrated by Bernard Chang, who previously collaborated with Strauss on The Game and the disappointing How to Make Money Like a Porn Star.) It’s a gateway of sorts for those looking into how to tackle survivalism: As Strauss investigates a second citizenship, money transfers outside the US, cache-making, goat-slaughtering and weapons training, it’s enough to make any sane reader consider whether they really have to fortitude to commit to such a lifestyle.
Because, no mistake about it, Strauss describes a life-altering experience. Without giving anything away about the book’s conclusion, Strauss hints that it’s impossible to be a serious survivalist without making permanent and irrevocable changes to the way one lives. This, I suspect (and testify), is likely to be the biggest stumbling block to most people’s quest for self-sufficiency: few of us have the resources, drive, time or interest (not to mention support from loved ones) to seriously pursue self-reliance. I may admire Strauss a lot for what he did in-between the beginning and the end of his Emergency voyage of discovery, but there’s no way I can do the same. Although… you never know: I ended up deliberately locking myself in the trunk of my car to experience a small chunk of what Strauss describes –can weapon training be far behind?
In the meantime, Emergency is a pretty solid read: After a shaky, whiny, self-pitying start, the book becomes stronger and stronger to end on a note of sheer admiration for Strauss’ odyssey. Beautifully designed (it even includes a treasure hunt through hidden clues), it’s a fun book to read, and that fun doesn’t preclude a number of gripping observations on the way we respond to unforeseen circumstances. I may be far more optimistic about human nature and the likelihood of widespread social breakdown than Strauss can be, but Emergency earns its right to make a vigorous case otherwise. After all, he suggest, the worst thing than a good survivalism outlook can do is make us a better, more capable human being.