CALIFORNIA, by Edan Lepucki. Little, Brown and Co., 393 pp., $26.

The dystopian future envisioned so darkly in Edan Lepucki's chilling first novel doesn't involve nuclear Armageddon or zombies. The world hasn't ended in fire or ice -- well, aside from the brutal winter storms that destroyed most of Ohio (sorry, Cleveland).

Disintegration of society has been slow, steady, irrevocable. Money, gas and oil are in short supply. The government has crumbled, and cities have become lawless centers of poverty and disorder.

The wealthy enclose themselves in protected communities, where they pay dearly for safety. Everybody else hunkers down and hopes -- or flees.

Frida and Cal, Lepucki's young married protagonists, choose to flee, escaping the wreckage of Los Angeles for the wilderness beyond. "No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: Those had been left to rot years before." They find a shed for shelter. They plant a garden. Cal tries his hand at building snares. Every few months a man in a cart shows up to barter goods, their lone connection to the outside world. They even meet a small family with children, the Millers, who live a few miles away.

After two years, Cal has grown to appreciate some parts of their lonely, primitive life (though he admits he misses books and sports, even the drone of talk radio). But the backbreaking work of staying alive has given him a valuable gift: He "was grateful for the silence, the time." On the other hand, Frida remains restless. As the novel opens, she has discovered something momentous: She's pregnant. And suddenly, the dangers of looking for other survivors in the neighborhood are outweighed by her desire to connect.

A staff writer for online magazine The Millions and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Lepucki may be best known to viewers of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." In reporting the ongoing battle between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, which includes Lepucki's publisher Little, Brown, host Stephen Colbert urged viewers to preorder "California" from other sites because Amazon refused to allow preorders. His goal, he told viewers, was to put "California" on the bestseller lists.

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Fortunately, "California" deserves a place there. It's a swiftly paced, nerve-racking novel.Despite its postapocalyptic setting, It's also a shrewd exploration of a marriage; Lepucki astutely charts the ebb and flow of Frida and Cal's relationship, which doesn't necessarily grow stronger in the face of their isolation. They find themselves drifting, hiding secrets

How far are we willing to go to protect the ones we love? What will we undertake to ensure our safety and comfort? Life is precious, Lepucki reminds us, and we'll do just about anything to make it last.