Survival to Reproduction: Rawles and DeNiro

As a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and survivalist, James Wesley, Rawles authors three books Patriots (1990-2009), Survivors (2011), Founders (2012), and Expatriates (2013) that imagine a near future in the wake of financial and social meltdown in the United States and negotiate a tricky ideological field between the potential and actual, the imagined and desired. The events of Patriots and Survivors occur simultaneously, suggesting that that much needs to be said about the time immediately following the disaster. Each book is subtitled A Novel of the Coming Collapse (1) and variously describe the stakes of catastrophe as “a full-scale socioeconomic collapse,” “the volatile era known as the ‘the Crunch,’” and “a perfect storm of reckless banking practices, hyperinflation, a stock market gone mad, and the negligence of our elected officials.” (2) Each description foregrounds the right conditions not only for collapse, but for the ‘know how’ and civilian expertise of the survivalist to become the ideal type, the ones who will thrive. Indeed, Patriots describes itself as “a thrilling narrative depicting fictional characters using authentic survivalist techniques to endure the collapse of American civilization. Reading this compelling, fast-paced novel could one day mean the difference between life and death,” (3) so the characters and stories may be fictional, but the techniques, militia code words, and munitions are all real—as the expansive glossaries at the back of each book suggest. Further, the index of each book isn’t for place names, character names, or events, but is rather for survival techniques and equipment, arms, and situations. Despite their exciting enticement to would be survivalists, each novel bears a weighty disclaimer that the book is not meant to take the place of a survival manual, to constitute legal or medical advice, or to instruct the reader on “the fabrication of devices that may be dangerous, illegal, or both.” In their exterior marketability these books label apocalypse as an object of desire, a moment for the role of the survivalist to move from being incidental to history towards its prime mover.

The final chapter of Patriots condenses its politics. Chapter 33 begins with an epigraph form Thomas Jefferson—“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms”(4)and is set 27 years after the collapse as Solomon Michael Lendel, a child born during the Crunch, attends his first classes at Boston College. The class is interrupted by a female student who notices Lendel’s gun and declares “He’s carrying a concealed weapon! That’s not allowed on campus!” (5) Rawles lets the tension hang as he describes the piece—“a well-worn XD .45 pistol and counter-balanced pair of spare loaded magazines in a hand-crafted shoulder holster. The leather rig was tooled in a floral Heiser renaissance pattern.” (6) The professor embarrasses the young lady and vindicates Lendel when he says, “I can see it plain as day,” and then offers a history lesson, engaging in current gun control legislation debates in the United States:

There is no University policy on the carrying of firearms, whether concealed or not. Nor should there be. Granted, open carry of guns has gradually gone out of style in the big cities these last few years. There isn’t much crime in the streets these days. However, this young gentleman’s choice to carry a gun—for whatever reason he chooses—is his own. He is a Sovereign Citizen and sui juris. The state has no say in the matter. It is strictly an individual choice, and a God-given right. The right to keep and bear arms is an absolute, secured by the Bill of Rights. I should also remind you that it is one of the main reasons we spent four horrendous years fighting the Second Civil War. How quickly we forget. Now let’s get on with class, shall we? (7) 

Rawles establishes a set of micro-power relations for political ends in this passage. The gun-toting Lendel, here, is an innocent bystander who is simply exercising his rights, while the nonplussed female student is given the voice of a reactionary, anti-gun liberal, which seems to mark her as anti-survivalist as well, finally, the professor is the bedrock voice of reason able to mediate these two positions in favour of divine law. In Rawles’s series survival becomes the baseline against which human actions and desire are chalked up.

The emphasis of Rawles’s novels situate survival as an obvious underpinning logic of post-apocalyptic fiction tout court, something David Seed locates as early as Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959) in his study Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives (2013). By extension, survivalist writing marks the most extreme expression of this logic, a moment when a basic question of the genre, ‘who will survive the end of the world,’ becomes formalized in a set of characters with the particular knowledge and expertise called for by the apocalyptic situation. Why not equip your characters as trained individuals with survival know-how for the end of the world? In Rawles’s survivalist fiction, it isn’t ‘plain, ordinary folks’ who manage to escape death and rebuild a new life instead militia members, gun enthusiasts, ex-military, and woodsy types band together to safeguard themselves and the U.S. from looters, criminals, and thugs. In order to fold Rawles’s work back into the narrative movement of post-apocalyptic fiction, an emphasis could be placed on visible signs of the hidden ideologeme at the heart of this university scene: Lendel is a child born of the collapse and his return to school indicates both a restored United States, to use Brin’s phrase, and that the future is once again in the grips of the productions of the present. Framing survival through children and families, which are so often a part of post-apocalyptic fiction, shifts its ideological work towards reproduction.

Turning then to a novel about survival, rather than survivalists, the Epilogue of Alan DeNiro’s Total Oblivion, More or Less (2009) closes the novel on the same register on which it begins—that of the family. Macy, the young female protagonist, opens the novel by imagining, in advance of the struggles found in its plot, that “all of this trouble will pass over.” (8) The return to normalcy she longs for includes electricity, the retreat of horse warriors, the return of land captured by an Empire, that cars could run again, that the plague will be cured, and that, in her words,  “we’ll all go back to St. Paul and I’ll start my senior year, none the worse for wear.” (9) The stakes, for the protagonist, are already set at a continuation of how life is supposed to be. She longs for the natural carrying-on that she’s come to expect after sixteen years of life in the American mid-west. Her reflections at the end of the novel carry a weighty reminder that things may appear to have been altered, but some structures, some relations continue whether or not they have been consciously maintained. Thus, in the epilogue, as she laments the death of her Mother and her brother, she comes to a revelation: “I understand love a little bit more—and what it can cost. But it’s a cost I’m more willing to pay. Mother taught me that. Ciaran taught me that. My living breathing family is still teaching me that. I don’t pretend to be wise anymore, and I don’t try to stop being afraid when I’m afraid, or angry when I’m angry. It sounds so easy but it’s the hardest things in the world.” (10) In this passage, any vaguely utopian hope for the future, even if it’s that continuation of her life with electricity, cars, and high school, is evacuated, replaced with something almost unnamable, at least in this novel—the continuation of the family through the protagonist’s quiet acceptance.

Indeed, the agenda of the ideological lesson of the novel comes from a note enclosed just before the Epilogue written by Macy’s sister, Sophia. Sophia becomes a midwife in the midst of the great geographic and political changes that occur in the novel, which include the emergence of an empire—Nueva Roma—and the deepening of the Mississippi to well-nigh Marianas Trench fathoms. The note reads:

A Birth during Wartime: At 8:02 p.m., on the seventh day of the egret’s month, 120 yards below sea level, two miles northeast of Nueva Roma, Macy [last name redacted] was born to Em [last name redacted] and Wye [last name redacted]. / Her weight at birth: 5 pounds, 4 ounces. / She is of no nationality, no country. She is of the sea, and her parents. / The Birth proceeded without incident. / Macy is a name from Old French, which means “weapon.” / (log of Sophia Palmer, midwife(11)

Is this what makes up the “More or Less” of the title? It certainly marks the turn away from the rebirth of the nation and state that happen in Rawles’s novels. But it does imagine the future from within this structure of the family, “of the sea, and of her parents.” The redacted last names point to a negotiation between the past and the future, as the legacies and inheritances of the old family are replaced by the hope for the future that grows in the new one. Further, Macy, in a lovely utopian gesture, means “weapon,” and signals the birth of possibility for radical change even as it comes from the “Old French.” Like the end of Patriots, DeNiro’s novel highlights another structure—reproduction—that impinges upon the way post-apocalyptic fiction tends to imagine future with the family becoming its most outward and visible sign.

(1) The subtitle of Patriots is actually A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse while Expatriates is A Novel of the Coming Global Collapse.
(2) Quotes taken from the dustjackets of Patriots, Survivors, and Founders.
(3) Emphasis mine.
(4) James Wesley, Rawles, Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 1990-2009), 386.
(5) Rawles, Patriots, 386.
(6) Rawles, Patriots, 386.
(7) Rawles, Patriots, 387.
(8) Alan DeNiro, Total Oblivion. More or Less (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 3.
(9) DeNiro, Total Oblivion, 3.
(10) DeNiro, Total Oblivion, 306.
(11) DeNiro, Total Oblivion, 297.

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