Saturday, July 23, 2011

Neil Strauss "Emergency" : a review

Neil Strauss was a New York Times reporter, and the author of a very successful book on how to pick up women that sold over 100,000 copies. So what was his next move?: To write a book about his experience in learning to become a survivalist. The book became Emergency.

As he recounts some of his experiences to L.A. Weekly:

Having learned how to survive earthquakes, biochemical attacks, nuclear winter and being stranded at sea, Strauss is now trying to navigate his way through one of the most trying aspects of book publishing, the part that makes many authors want to lie down and die: that is to say, promoting the book.

“The thing about survival is that it’s really selfish. So I’m going to hoard all my supplies and sit on them with my shotgun,” he says as he waits for a newspaper photographer at his home in Laurel Canyon. “You have to do extreme things.”

Extreme like eat another human being? “You know, I’ll probably be asked that. I’ll have to get used to it.”

The cannibal question reminds him of when he was out in the forest, learning advanced knife skills with a survivalist named Mad Dog. His girlfriend, Katie, refused to join them.

“She’s a survival liability,” Strauss remembers apologizing to Mad Dog.

“Not necessarily,” said Mad Dog. “She’s an excellent source of protein.”

The book starts in December of 1999, with New York Times reporter and author, Neil Strauss, trying to connect up a group of doomsayers he can hang out with as the millennium turns: presumably to write about it when the end does not come.   As fate would have it, when you have the connection of a New York Times entertainment reporter, you wind up spending New Years eve at the White House calibration.
The experience with the doomsayers sits idling in his brain until September 11, 2001.  As a resident of Los Angelos, the attack on New York City was his wake up call.  He begins his panicked first attempts with an attempt to get himself a gas mask.  From that point on there is no turning back.
The book is a lively sequence of events that occur to a single relatively young adult with no children, a very cute but easily frightened girl friend, who lives in Los Angelos decides that he is worried about where the country is going, and decides to take steps to improve his chances of survival. 
He has absolutely no traditional survival skills.  When he got a cub scout pocket knife as a boy, his parents took his “weapon” away from him, promising to give it back when he was older:  he never got it back.  What he does have is a reporters dogged persistence to keep asking questions, a canny ability to get people to help him, and a collection of very well placed friends.  Truthfully, although he only comments on it once that I can recall, his ability to maneuver the complex network that is called human society is actually very impressive and can be learned from.
Helped, no doubt, that he can write off much of the expenses as a writer of a non-fiction book, he takes survival type classes from an absolute who’s who of survival type instructors.
A typical chain of events might go like this:
He mentions Kurt Saxon, Howard Ruff, and Mel Tappan and gives a history of what was to become the survivalist movement.   Then he notes:
It was these men who both gave birth to survivalism and gave the term its fearsome reputation.  And so I did what any aspiring survivalist would do: I called them and asked where to begin.
True to form, he gets hold of Kurt Saxon.  When the conversation get around to Saxon’s politics, Saxon responds:
“I’m neither left-wing nor right-wing.  Forty years ago, I had a habit of joining nut groups.  And you can’t find a nuttier group than the Nazis.  They were fun.  When we disbanded, we formed the Iron Cross Motorcycle Club.  And we were the toughest storm troopers out there.  We were terrorists.  We used terror.”
If there is, as paranoid people suspect, an FBI phone-monitoring system that begins recording every time certain words are used in a conversation.  Saxon had definitely tripped it by now.
“Occasionally the police would call and tell us there was going to be a hippie bash protesting the war, and we’d go in,” Saxon continued. :The police loved to watch because they hated hippies.  Still, some of our guys wanted to quit and join the left, because they had better booze, dope, and girls.”
As promised, Saxon would call the author every week or so to offer survival advice.
There are too many sub-themes to go through them all.  The author through much of the book is trying to get a citizenship with a second country so that he can make a quick escape from the United States if (Third Reich-like) it goes to pieces, This adds a seductive string of continuity and a little bit of tension through the book.
The final portion of the book is a little bit of a change.  He starts to learn emergency medical techniques, and to get more experience he joins up with local L.A. emergency group.  The training has taken him to the point where instead of running away from disaster, he is running toward it.
I know I can take care of myself and my loved ones.  But until the day comes when I have to do that, I’m going to be taking care of everybody else.
The book is broken up into many short chapters.  This does make it a little hard at times to get up a head of steam to really plow through it, but makes it a much easier book for people who are more the magazine (or blog) type reader.  He doesn’t give too much detail with the advice he learns, but he give a lot of background , and someone reading a blog ought to be able to figure out how to get the details.   The book has a website but there is not too much there.  There is a funny video with a goat that he brings in on some sort of odd urban-homesteading impulse.
Oh, yes! And best of all the scared girlfriend, Katie, learns how to drive.

Neil Strauss with a young lady who may be Katie the scared girlfriend

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