We Can Save Us All by Adam Nemett

We Can Save Us All BY Adam Nemett. The Unnamed Press. Paperback, 363 pages. $18.
The cover of We Can Save Us All

Adam Nemett's debut novel We Can Save Us All deserves points for ambition. In just under four hundred pages he's folded in the campus novel, socialist activism, toxic masculinity, psychopharmacology, communalism, American mythology, the anthropocene, and the apocalypse. All from the perspective of Princeton freshman David Fuffman, an innocent with a neckbeard—yes, he's a virgin—and an obsession with the pre-Watchmen age of superheroes.

It's 2021 and global warming brings ten-day blizzards to New Jersey and lake-sized sinkholes to Missouri. Power outages and mass migration are commonplace. None of this matters, because seconds are disappearing from our weeks, and soon our days as well. "Chronostrictesis" theory calculates time will reach its "null point" in less than a year, when everyone will die. Or not! Nobody knows for sure. While many apocalyptic novels occur after the fall, Nemett's dramatization of society's (possibly) last days is refreshing.

David hedges his bets: he'll still attend classes, just in case everything works out, while spending most of his days as an acolyte of Mathias Blue, a charismatic sophomore and dedicated prepper. David will also do a lot of drugs.

Mathias has the good looks and trust fund of the college alpha, and lives in an egg-shaped off-campus house: the Gatsby to David's Nick Carraway. Mathias is funding the other three residents' "theses": survivalist projects to be used When The Shit Hits the Fan. He believes humanity will survive the null point and emerge into a post-civilization . . . something.

About the drugs. Everyone at the house regularly doses themselves with "Zeronal," which slows time and promotes concentration: "When you're on Zeronal, complex movements seem preordained. . . . Moves tight and fast like pow! He was the Michael Jackson of everything." The housemates also ingest a form of DMT to experience spiritual awakening. The paragraphs of astral-plane trippiness will be familiar to anyone who's suffered a friend's ayahuasca story.

The fact that Mathias & Co are always high excuses the novel's central gambit, which may be a bridge too far for some: David proposes they become superheroes, supported by his tutelage and Mathias’s financial largesse. "'Superheroes are ubiquitous these days,'" he says to Mathias. "'But they're always fighting alien monsters instead of dealing with real shit like hurricane evacuation. This way, we become elevated versions of ourselves. It's collective branding mixed with radical individualism—best of both worlds. And costumes allow for anonymous protest.'"

The five housemates start with small civic actions—donating food and medicine to snowed-in neighbors—and soon escalate to activist stunts that are ambiguous on politics and direct on freely distributed hallucinogens: the Merry Pranksters, rebooted. (If you want the Occupy version of this, see Eugene Lim's Dear Cyborgs.) David's cohort calls themselves the "Unnamed Supersquadron of Vigilantes" (USV), and glowing press coverage of their guerilla happenings leads to a growing roster of adherents. The boys’ house takes all comers; soon it's an inevitable, full-on cult, with Mathias as libertine figurehead (aka "Ultraviolet") and David as behind-the-scenes producer ("Infrared" at first, and then "Business-Man"). USVs in other cities metastasize into a global network.

At this point you might think, another novel about cults? In recent years the territory’s been richly mined by Alexandra Kleeman, Emma Cline, and R.O. Kwon. Perhaps our era of instability lends itself to tales of combustible communal living.

Adam Nemett breaks up the USV’s homosocial hero worship with the character of Haley Roth, a fellow Princetonian and a high school friend of David's. A love triangle forms between Haley, David, and Mathias, which feels unconvincing and diagrammatic. Haley and David are never fully realized, too often seen as expressing the same handful of thoughts. Her trauma from being drugged and raped at a Halloween party wholly defines her character (and her superhero persona)—all of her actions trace back to it. David, meanwhile, is limited to adolescent hemming and hawing. He grasps his changing world but doesn't himself change, as if an accumulation of facts could substitute knowledge. The only person with nuance and complication is Mathias, and he disappears from the narrative for long stretches.

So Nemett's focus is on plot, not character. His charming and conversational prose creates a headlong momentum, ideal for the USV's elaborate pranks as they evolve into cinematic, off-the-rails spectacles. At one point the police, the superheroes, documentary crews, and passersby battle each other on the campus lawn like something out of Braveheart. And the novel’s climax is equal parts Waterworld and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

The spirit of We Can Save Us All is firmly countercultural, and its direct forebear is Richard Fariña's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me from 1966. That book also features charismatic leaders, heavy drug use, an Ivy League setting, student riots, turncoats, and a love triangle. Fariña addressed the town-and-gown problem of the campus novel—Is it a microcosm for society? If not, how to incorporate the outside world?—by sending his characters to Havana on the eve of the Cuban revolution. Student politics became synecdochic for the geopolitical stage.

Nemett nods to the off-campus world through the reports of increasingly frequent and destructive natural disasters. These stakes feel somewhat removed from the characters’ actions and reality. You wonder: If the weather is so cataclysmic, why is the school even open? If China did poison the Chesapeake Bay, where's the political recourse? If giant expanses of the U.S. are underwater, is Princeton really the safest place to wait out the apocalypse? And where are all these kids’ families?

The book maddens in other ways. A date rape occurs two-thirds through the book and is never addressed. "Faggot" is used twice in dialogue without justification or excuse. The light personal consequences of the USV's pranks scream class privilege.

A judicious edit would have solved many (but not all) of these problems. They don't sink the novel. It retains its energy and wit. The flaws highlight the circa-now challenges in using the campus novel as an armature for global themes. The writer who embarks on this 400-page project risks seeing the rapid changes in technology and gender politics render her novel obsolete by the time it’s published. As a successful counterpoint see Teddy Wayne’s Loner—about toxic masculinity and sexual assault at Harvard—which clocks in at 224 pages.

That said, there are prospective college students for whom We Can Save Us All's outlook of tune in, turn on, tear it down could act as totem and guide. Don't be surprised if you start hearing of college quads stormed by people in capes.

Ryan Chapman’s novel Riots I Have Known will be published in May by Simon & Schuster.