Infiltrating the survivalists

By Chuck Leddy
March 21, 2009
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Author Neil Strauss is a strange guy, constantly seeking out bizarre subcultures, people on the lunatic fringe, and unusual experiences. For his readers, this is not always a bad thing. In his bestseller "The Game," he embedded himself in the underworld of pick-up artists. In his latest, he enters the paranoid landscape of survivalists.

In the process, Strauss predictably adopts part of the mentality of his newfound comrades. "I've begun to look at the world through apocalypse eyes," he admits. "Our society, which seems so sturdily built out of concrete and custom, is just a temporary resting place, a hotel our civilization checked into a couple hundred years ago and must one day check out of."

Looking for a way out of the United States in case things fall apart, whether due to terrorism, natural disaster, or revolution, Strauss befriends a survivalist billionaire who tells him he should seek citizenship from another country. Strauss travels to St. Kitts, in the Caribbean, where all he has to do to become a citizen is buy a house and pay lawyer's fees.

A St. Kitts real estate developer tells him he's hardly the first US citizen seeking safe haven there: "Now it's all Americans. One family is here because they fear war with Iran. Another because they don't want their children drafted. And another is here because they make money offshore and don't want . . . it taxed." Strauss ends up spending $60,000 on legal fees and hundreds of thousands on a house.

Strauss possesses a self-effacing wit. Meeting with a shady lawyer to protect his fast-dwindling assets from US authorities, he's rightfully suspicious: "When [the attorney] was through explaining everything, I couldn't tell whether I was protecting myself from being scammed or actually being scammed."

Next he takes a course in killing with a knife, during which an instructor named Mad Dog demands that he slaughter a live goat. Strauss also studies wilderness survival, learning to build a shelter from leaves, find water, and live off the land. After getting instruction in shooting, he finds himself changing from wimpy writer to would-be killer: "Something strange had occurred. I developed a bloodlust I'd never felt before. I actually wanted an excuse to shoot a bad guy."

In perhaps the clearest moment of transformation in "Emergency," Strauss dresses as a woman during an exercise in urban survival. As he's putting on his disguise in a men's bathroom, two aggressive civilians show up. Fearing they're about to attack him, Strauss angrily rips off his hat and wig, informs the men he's a Marine taking part in a drill, and warns them to back off. They do. "I'd learned my lesson," Strauss writes: "cross-dressing is not an urban survival tactic. It's an urban suicide tactic."

At the book's end, Strauss relays what he's learned. First, he has the ability to take action despite his fears: his training "destroy[ed] the immobilizing power [my fears] held over me." Second, he rejects the isolationist ethos of the survivalists, viewing the building of community as essential: "There's only one way to carry on with life: be good to and look after each other."

These tacked-on platitudes aside, "Emergency" is an entertaining quest for knowledge, however strange. The book will probably not, as the subtitle claims, "save your life," but it's an interesting journey into an unconventional subculture, and inside the weirdly fascinating brain of Neil Strauss.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

EMERGENCY: This Book Will Save Your Life By Neil Strauss

Harper, 418 pp., paperback, illustrated, $16.99

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