By Richard McKenna / November 16, 2016
In the early 1980s, the spectrum of opinions regarding life after a nuclear exchange ranged from that held by the scientific establishment—at best a severely compromised environment, and at worst the extinction of the human race—to another, less pessimistic view that sensed an opportunity for a mankind neutered by the shackles of modern society to return to the more unambiguous, manly, uncompromised moral certainties of a simpler age. Unsurprisingly, The Survivalist series falls squarely into the second camp.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Cold War entered a new phase of progressively heightened tensions, and at the same time both Britain and the United States were in the grip of severe economic decline. Electorates spooked by the uncertain times voted in Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and, given the pair’s hawkish propensities, the possibility of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war now seemed to many both more likely and less survivable than ever before. It was into this powder keg world that Zebra’s Men’s Adventure line released Jerry Ahern’s first Survivalist novel: 1981’s Total War. Born in Chicago in 1946, Ahern had been a teacher and a stringer for a local newspaper before starting to write for firearms magazines and eventually becoming a professional author. In later life, he produced a series of gun holsters of his own design and became the president of gun company Detonics USA. In total, Ahern wrote 29 books in the Survivalist series (the final one was published 12 years after the first, in 1993), and did much to popularize the survivalism philosophy.
Not coincidentally, one presumes, Ahern and his fictional creation share an Irish surname: the series’ protagonist is Dr. John Thomas Rourke, a CIA operative, weapons expert, and trained physician who always carries two stainless steel Detonics (yes) .45s in Alessi shoulder holsters (the reader soon learns that in the world of The Survivalist, anything survival-ey, from weapons to torches, must always be referred to by full name and technical specs). Inevitably, he also smokes cigars and wears mirror aviators—though not for aesthetic reasons, we learn. His night vision is so sensitive that daylight hurts his eyes (perhaps this is the annoyingly convenient disease possessed by U2’s Bono). We also soon discover that Rourke just happens to be the coolest human on the planet—again, not by design, but through circumstance. His extreme self-possession is simply a by-product of his being infallibly prepared.
In fact, Rourke is what would in modern terminology be referred to as a “prepper”—convinced of the inevitability of catastrophic events, he has chosen to prepare for them as best as he can by storing up weapons and supplies as well as by building—somehow—a secret, self-sufficient mountain refuge containing living space, library, and greenhouse, far above the deluge of human filth that he knows will eventually flood the Earth. Rourke’s literary predecessor is the Biblical hero and quintessential prepper (or ur-prepper, if you will)—Noah.
Rourke, it is implied, has no wish to be proved right about the fact that his obsession with weapons and survival are necessary evils in a world that he didn’t make—but, of course, he will be. And despite it being repeatedly implied that he would actually like nothing better than to be proved wrong, he spends a lot of energy pointing out to other people how dead wrong they are.
At the beginning of Total War, Rourke and his wife Sarah—who writes and illustrates children’s books, presumably the most emphatically womanly and un-survivalist-like way of making a living of which Ahern could conceive—are living separately in their home, mainly because of Sarah’s growing unease at what she sees as his obsession with death and killing. Evidence of this comes with Rourke’s return home to his family after a dangerous mission on the borders of Pakistan: rather than waking his wife or children, Ann and Michael, who are late for school, he sticks a cigar in his mouth and polishes an antique rifle. Make of the multiple metaphors what you will (and smoking, whether cigars or cigarettes, is a repeated motif throughout for masculinity asserting itself).
The first half of the book is devoted to brisk and reasonably credible exposition concerning why all-out thermonuclear war between the USA and the USSR is in the cards, introducing the various characters and contriving the narrative in such a way that when the nukes are launched, Rourke will be in the air aboard a 747 that he will have to pilot and land with the assistance of a friendly fellow passenger (who has taken a few flying lessons) and an air hostess. The friendly fellow passenger will be decapitated as the plane crash lands, and the hostess shot by a gang of bikers—fates, if Total War is anything to go by, common to most of those who help Rourke. Surprisingly, the Russians in the book aren’t painted as especially mindless baddies and the war itself isn’t immediately blamed on them. It’s depicted more as the inevitable outcome of the geopolitical situation.
It doesn’t take long for society to break down. Only a day after the nukes have hit, the world is riddled with packs of rabid dogs, gangs of roving bikers (though Rourke is careful to explain that not all anti-authoritarians are “scum”), and self-proclaimed militias on the prowl, and a vanload of youths has already turned up at Rourke’s homestead to hold his kids at gunpoint in an attempt to blackmail Sarah into providing post-apocalyptic fellatio. Fortunately, young Michael is a chip off his cigar-smoking dad’s block and gets his first kill in early, sinking a boning knife into one of the assailant’s kidneys (again, a type of detail that must always be rendered in toto) and saving his mother, who, to her own surprise, begins to find her own survivalist voice and steady gun hand at about the same time. Soon after, Sarah’s next door neighbors, Carla and Ron, alarmed at seeing her house in flames, appear on horseback to check up on her, and she decides to set off with them—though not before charitably reflecting that “Carla Jenkins talked too much, and Ron Jenkins didn’t talk enough – and their daughter Millie was a brat.”
In the meantime, Rourke and milquetoast Paul Rubenstein, another survivor of the 747 crash, go into nearby Albuquerque to seek assistance for the wounded, leaving the hostess and an “irritating” Canadian (the book is peppered with these offhand criticisms of other people for being too talkative or friendly) to defend the plane. Once there, they find that the town is in a mess, and after the need to strip off their irradiated clothes and loot fresh ones has necessitated them presenting naked to one another, they go to a church-turned-field hospital where Rourke spends a few hours using his doctor skills to assist the priest (who whispers, awed, that the Lord himself must have sent him). Over the course of the journey, Rubenstein, “a smallish man with a receding hairline and wire framed glasses” who was a junior editor (another decadent, bookish professional) before the war and who acts as the putative reader’s avatar, becomes Rourke’s sidekick and cheerleader, gushing adoring nonsense like, “That was spectacular… It was like a movie or something. You would have made one hell of a great cowboy in the old west, John Rourke”; or offering exposition of Rourke’s behavior:
“You always plan ahead, don’t you John?”
“Yeah, Paul,” Rourke whispered. “I try to.”
After returning to the plane to discover that a gang of bikers has killed off the passengers and taken their luggage, Rourke and Rubenstein, the latter now masculinized by his first touch of a hot gun barrel, take on the gang and set them to their heels, but Rourke will settle for nothing less than total vengeance, so they chase the bikers down and kill them all:
Rourke smiled, whispering, “I just wanted to make sure you knew who I was.” His left hand had been resting on the back of the bike seat. Now he flashed it outward, the snubby-barreled Lawman appeared in his fist. He pulled the trigger twice. The muzzle was less than a yard from the Viking’s face. Both bullets sliced through his head, and blood and brains exploded, spattering the two women, who began to wail and run.
And that’s how the book ends, with Rourke and Rubenstein heading off towards Georgia to find Sarah.
One surprise to any reader like myself new to the world of survivalism is the extent of the role blind chance plays, despite all the emphasis on what would later become known as “prepping.” A looted shop in Albuquerque just happens to have a geiger counter on a shelf, and an abandoned truck luckily contains packages of just the ammunition that Rourke uses. Another fascinating discovery is how important detailed lists are in Ahern’s world, so much so that the reader begins to wonder whether all these catastrophes might not simply be a pretext for their obsessive creation. Here’s an example:
He found some flashlight batteries, bar type shaving soap prepacked in small mugs, and safety razors and blades. He rubbed the stubble on his face, took a safety razor and as many packs of blades as he could cram in the breast pocket of his sweat-stained blue shirt, one of the mugs and several bars of soap. He found another consignment of ammunition-158 grain semi-jacketed soft point .357s and took eight boxes of fifty. With it were some .223 solids and he took several hundred rounds of these as well.
The peculiarly passive-aggressive Rourke, always clearly busting for a fight but requiring a pretext to put him in the right, is an ’80s avatar, a man who spends a lot of time claiming not to want trouble, but who clearly always does. He’s a strong, silent type who scorns windbags and yet seems always to be talking, although exclusively in monologues—the shared creation involved in conversation is for those who haven’t prepped. Given the amount of time Rourke spent away from his wife and kids while training the Mounties or assisting Pakistani Special Forces, it’s also hard not to wonder why he hasn’t equipped his family home with anything more than a couple of flashlights and a hurricane cellar. The secret mountain retreat (of which Rourke says is “…not an arsenal. It’s a part of civilization, a protected piece…”) is far away, in a location known only to him, the implication being that his family must only survive through him. In fact, by the middle of the book Rourke has become a messianic character. We are constantly reminded of how nobody saw the end coming—not the U.S. president, not the Russian Premier, not the blowhard businessman he sits next to on the plane, not his wife—nobody except Rourke. It takes some chutzpah to require the world to end in flames just to vindicate your point of view, and, in fact, Rourke seems almost relieved by the falling bombs, smiling for the first time in the novel only after the mushroom clouds have risen into the stratosphere.
The covers of the U.S. and British versions of Total War reveal interesting variations in their renderings of the protagonist: in the U.S. version, Rourke resembles a grumpy, aggrieved-looking Tom Petty wearing a sleeveless tanktop, while the U.K. version (published, predictably, by the New English Library in 1983) offers us a much smugger, thuggish-looking lump of steroid-swollen beefcake clad in the same garment (known to British readers as a “vest”). Perhaps this reflects differences in who the perceived audiences were: in Britain, with its densely populated landscape, lack of access to firearms—a survivalist prerequisite—and a history of Nazi bombing that had previously reduced swathes of the country to rubble, the macho survivalist character was much more of an aspirational figure, a fantasy that burst the constraints of a rule-dominated society, like a right-wing version of punk. The French edition, not released until 1985, took a different approach altogether, replacing the tank-top men bearing arms on the covers with bare-breasted women doing the same, presumably because of the gun-toting vigilante’s lack of appeal in a country that had experienced this personage first-hand during the Second World War, or purely from a marketing perspective identifying the puerile drives of potential readers with sex instead of violence.
The Survivalist books were—obviously—not written as a serious exploration of the realities of post-nuclear survival but as a delivery device for gratifying and fast-moving moralistic action. From a narrative perspective, it is an emphatic, summarizing world that Rourke inhabits—one where, though we readers should already know what is happening, a dying looter will helpfully shout “Gas – I’m on fire!” even as he perishes to save us from needing to cast our eyes back over a fitfully read paragraph on the previous page. No stylist or grammarian, Ahern’s prose is for the first half of the book serviceable and—forgive me—muscular, his most irksome habit that of repeating the same word multiple times within the space of a couple of lines. The book’s editor appears to have died in the first wave of nuclear attacks, however, because after that, the quality of the writing, like the Western seaboard in the story, sinks under the waves, never to reemerge.
From this point on, whenever an action scene occurs, the narrative picks up speed to the point that it becomes almost incomprehensible, as though Ahern is excitedly dictating it, describing each individual kill with the relish of a schoolboy narrating his real time gameplay on Capcom’s Commando. In fact, once the nukes are in the air, any pretense of realpolitik analysis is thrown to the winds and the whole thing takes on a distinctly breathless air, as though it is being made up on the hoof. At no point is there even the slightest sensation that any of it bears any relation to reality, or wishes to, and the uncanny-valley queasiness of the human interactions and the hero worship Ahern displays every time he speaks about Rourke sometimes resembles the frenetic, masturbatory pace of pornography.
Despite everything, though, Total War is fun—compelling, infantile, stupid fun, its Manichean universe actually reassuring when viewed in the context of the terrifying ambiguities of the real world. It is curious to contrast it with the previous year’s Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, or even with children’s books tackling similar subjects such as Raymond Briggs’ comic When the Wind Blows (1982) or Robert Swindell’s Brother in the Land (1984). Ahern’s breezy dismissal of the consequences of the deaths of tens of millions of people borders on psychosis. The Survivalist‘s subtext, or possibly simply its text, is that we will all be better off after the bomb because it will oblige us to be who we need to be and who we really are: women will learn how to kill (whispering to themselves wonderingly and appreciatively as they do so), as will children, and even the President of the United States will smirk to himself as, after taking up smoking again (of course), he launches the resistance movement against the Russian invasion by shooting himself in the head, thus ensuring that the occupying forces cannot use him to spread propaganda about a U.S. surrender. The book almost reads like some kind of childish act of sympathetic crypto-fascist magic, and yet it is never entirely clear what exactly it is that Rourke wishes to survive for. Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Perhaps the whole point of survivalism is simply being able to say—to yourself alone, ideally—that you survived, full stop. It is the ultimate vindication of the male ego: a wet dream of being always right.
With the exception of the few good people Rourke encounters, usually shortly before they are decapitated or shot in the head by the “scum” who justify Rourke’s existence, at the heart of the book there lies a kind of misanthropy, or perhaps more precisely miserabilism—a belief in a world where practically everyone is an enemy to be feared, where even the nice ones talk too much or are foolish, and where the protagonist has every justification for heading off to his mountain retreat, never to have to interact with another human being again. Or perhaps it simply represents the reaction of a shy or introverted person to a world perceived as being full of threats, of which the need to interact with others is more frightening even than the trials of life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Trials can be prepared for, after all, with oodles of firearms and lists. Humans remain unpredictable, and, in the end, are not prep-able, except through the autocratic power of the demagogue and his stormtroopers.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.