Above All Men
by Eric Shonkwiler
Midwestern Gothic Press, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780988201323, 266 pp., paperback, available March 2014
When we dream about the apocalypse, we dream about the atom bomb, zombies, global warfare, aliens, whatever the case may be. What we don't think about as much is dying crops, oil running out—in short, the earth slowly dwindling and falling into strife. In Above All Men, his unique but often refreshingly simple take on a decaying future America, Eric Shonkwiler takes us to a dustbowl-esque farm town, and the effect is neither an apocalyptic nor post-apocalyptic novel but rather a drying-up world where we can only vaguely smell the apocalypse on the winds of the dust storms.
Consistent with the novel's overall simplicity, the plot itself is fairly simple and easy to follow. With a war in his distant past, David, the protagonist, struggles to keep his family afloat through the decaying landscape and his own tough-to-kick habits of nobility that often verge on the quixotic. Having abandoned his pregnant wife once before the start of the narrative in order to "bring back" his best friend Red from the war when he was supposed to, David continues struggling throughout the novel with what he considers morally right pitted against what is best for his own family. When a close friend's daughter is murdered, tearing her family to shreds in the aftermath, David is pushed over the edge to confront his moral need to hunt down the murderer in lieu of supporting his practically starving family.
Really, the only complaint about the plot is that Shonkwiler takes his time building this tension—a little too much time, it seems. There don't really seem to be enough points of tension leading up to the death of this young girl to justify the length of time it takes for the plot to get there. The images of the struggling farm town, David's struggling family, difficulties on the farm, Helene's accusations toward David as a family man and father—the reader is taken ad nauseam through different manifestations of each. It is not until more than halfway through the novel that the plot begins to build momentum and palpable tension. Late in the novel, the narrator describes some of David's work on the farm, saying "It was hard work and tedious…" At this point, reading the novel has begun to feel as such, as well.
Nonetheless, Shonkwiler does a good job of foreshadowing this violence throughout the novel. It begins with a nightmare where David loses his own son to a storm, and images of violence in the next town over coupled with allusions to oncoming storms pervade the narrative leading up to the murder. It's just the length of time it takes to reach that point that's the problem.
Told in third-person through the eyes of David, the style is simple yet effective. The prose is always straightforward and never florid, but it is peppered with well-earned moments of poetry. "He felt a hollowness in his chest," the narrator says about David at one point. "That if he spoke his heart would echo." The narrative is filled with moments like these, but as the novel is not overstuffed with them or with pedantic prose, such statements echo within us throughout the journey.
The style of dialogue adds to the naturalness and simplicity as well. The text is entirely without quotations marks or speech tags. This way, the dialogue is woven into the narration in a way that enhances the text's appealing simplicity. However, this style of dialogue is at times questionable. As none of the speech is tagged, sometimes it hinders the flow of reading rather than helps it as a reader may at times need to reread a passage to figure out what is being said and what is being narrated. Although the simple dialogue often adds a natural feel to the text, it at times becomes a guessing game for the reader that detracts from the focus of the story.
For the most part, the characters are well-developed. Shonkwiler develops the theme of vicious cycles brilliantly through the relationship between David and his son, Samuel. The character of Helene, David's wife, is perhaps not as well-written as the others, as she shows moments of inconsistencies that seem at times like Shonkwiler was himself a little indecisive about who he wanted her to be; nonetheless, she and David together reflect a believable couple at the head of a struggling family.
As a whole, the novel pulls out moments of profound complexity through its simplicity. The foreshadowing, subtle symbolism (war references like a dog named Macha and pervasive oil imagery to mirror the dwindling supply of oil are particularly effective, for example), and moments of poetic abstraction that surface just enough to echo throughout the narrative without being overdone, all add to a novel that, if slow at first, is an entirely rewarding read.—Jacob Budenz