the guardian Fri 10 July 2009
Stunt books - in which the author goes off and does something unusual in order to write about it - can be an excellent source of vicarious pleasure. And Neil Strauss - whose previous stunt book, The Game, saw him initiated into the world of "pick-up artists", who teach geeks algorithms for attracting women - has picked an ideal follow-up stunt for our uncertain times: becoming a survivalist.
"I've begun to look at the world through apocalypse eyes," he declares portentously. What if society breaks down? Could a rock journalist survive in the subsequent atavistic free-for-all? (Strauss's coinage for this scenario is "a Fliesian world", as in Lord of the Flies. No, I don't think it will catch on either.) Searching for guidance, Strauss meets an assortment of fanatical anti-government weirdos, a legendary outdoorsman called Tom Brown Jr, and a master knifemaker named Mad Dog (who sports, reassuringly, "a brown handlebar mustache"). Teachers of survival skills say things such as: "We're nine meals away from chaos in this country." And Strauss gets his stunts on: learning to use firearms, build shelters, find edible plants, and kill a goat. (At least one animal really was harmed in the making of this book.)
For an idea that presses so many universal male-fantasy buttons (I for one would love to get a book out of learning to shoot guns and whittle sticks), the result is remarkably tedious - partly because it tries so frantically to avoid tedium. It is evidently aimed at people who don't read books: the chapters are mostly about three pages long, presenting light-magazine-style 1,200-word write-ups of his various survival, first-aid, or urban-evasion courses, interspersed with conversations with his girlfriend, sophomoric reflections on politics, and cartoons depicting a more handsome version of the author doing manly things with soft-drinks cans or shoelaces.
Most fatally, though, Strauss glosses over the details of what he actually learns, regularly mentioning a new battery of skills he has acquired but not bothered to explain. At the end of one chapter he even announces that he is going to learn "street-fighting" at the local Krav Maga school, and then never describes the training. (Perhaps he is saving that story up for another stunt book.)
The real story here is Strauss himself, and his changing attitudes to fear and danger. (He eventually finds peace of mind as an emergency volunteer.) Unfortunately, he lacks the writerly and observational subtlety of, say, Jon Ronson (who has covered some of the same material in a more interesting way). Meanwhile, readers who buy the book expecting lots of useful facts and tips are likely to feel short-changed by a decadently attention-deficit, philosophy-free version of Self-Reliance for the Twitter generation. Earnest emergency fetishists will rue a missed opportunity, and fondle the reassuring covers of their Worst-Case Scenario handbooks.