FEBRUARY 5, 2014
TAKE A TRIP through the rural Midwest, through the outskirts of town, and you already see it: the decay, the abandoned, boarded dwellings, the blighted portrait of just-getting-by, shrouded in the pall that hangs overhead like a dust cloud. Yet the people whose feet are rooted in that soil are the ones who will withstand the apocalypse with claw hammers, hatchets, scythes, and thirty-aught-sixes, to outlast every dystopian nightmare you throw at them. These people, this land — left solitary to wither on indefinitely the way it’s headed — find their strength and voice in Eric Shonkwiler’s debut literary fiction novel of post-collapse, Above All Men.
Shonkwiler, an Ohio native and former Plains resident, knows the landscape like an old companion — its shortcomings, its downfalls, its beauty, and power. He concedes to Mother Nature by making her as much a character in this story as any other protagonist or antagonist, her cruelty usually deferring to the latter. You’ll come out of this book so covered in epic-Steinbeckian dust that you’ll itch to shower, and wince when you drag a finger along a long-neglected shelf or when someone mentions the dust jacket.
The plot is simple and linear. In the near-future, the government of today has clearly kept going the way it’s currently going, leading us to some kind of global or civil war that has further collapsed our economy. Scientific and technological advancements have come to a halt, aiding the logical succession of high unemployment rates, severe injudicial processes, increased drug use, and an oil shortage that tests the very boundaries of our dependency on luxury, resources, and one another. People from the coasts move inland for food, jobs, and shelter, and the push brings lawlessness to the Midwest unseen since US Marshals and Texas Rangers covered thousands of miles of ungoverned territory on horseback. When the murder of a local child rocks the troubled soul of a struggling farmer and war veteran with PTSD, we unravel a tale of revenge, survival — and above all, loyalty no matter the cost — that will make you think twice about who you pick as team captain when the apocalyptic shit hits the fan. Add to this some of Mother Nature’s harshest obstacles, and you’ve got yourself a book that uniquely falls somewhere between The Grapes of Wrath, William Faulkner’s back porch steps, McCarthy’s road, and the Wild West frontier.
Yet, where the plot is straightforward, Shonkwiler’s words are brilliantly poetic — quiet creepers that seem stark and undecorated on the surface, but the lines hum with underlying emotion that, while not set effusively in the words, is the very cement of the foundation beneath them. We never get to hear what the characters feel, what they think, what they contemplate. Instead, we look outward from the characters and are faced with the unforgiving landscape. Emotion is shown entirely through dissections of dust, through storms and drifts and mounds and cut fences and the color of the horizon. The surrounding relentless Midwest is so personified that it speaks to us clearer than any other character ever could. When we don’t know what to feel or what to do with it, Shonkwiler commands us to look to the land for answers. The terrain is the true narrator, and all other characters are the puppets that act through its narration, carrying with them all of the hardships and pride that are mirrored in the land. This marriage enables the actors to shine as vividly as the environment that directs them.
You’ll feel, in the rhythm, comparisons to classic contemporaries here — Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner will come to mind — but the voice clearly drawn from these influences has been perfected to become uniquely Shonkwiler’s. His writing has been called, “stark … bare … stripped-down.” It is.
And it isn’t. To call this writing “bare,” simply because it is clear, precise, and uncluttered (not loaded in adjectives, as this commentary is), does not do enough justice to the singsong quality of Shonkwiler’s well-placed line. There are the things that will make Grammar Nazis mourn — the absence of quotation marks, the deliberate repetition of “and” to coincide with the deliberate omission of commas, clearly choices to make the page look as clean as it feels. Yet, it only takes a few pages to see that Oxford’s way isn’t the only way, and Shonkwiler’s shunning of conventional rules only lends to the crispness and bold, cerebral uniqueness of his clean lines. There’s nothing here that he didn’t intend to be here. He doesn’t waste a breath. He doesn’t crowd out the point with tripe. But the ability to convey emotion through a dust cloud — through the angle of the sun, a certain wood grain, the wind at the nape of the neck, through unused landlines covered under overgrowth — is an art that cannot be taught. It is Shonkwiler’s gift, a repeat of nothing and repeated by no one.
Overall, the story moves quietly. It builds like the dust storms that plague it. There is no loud, obnoxious pop, nothing explosive or cheap, but the characters breed in you unexpectedly, knitting themselves into your fabric, until you cannot help but be dragged under their horses.
Shonkwiler’s Midwest is a canvas of truth and commentary: political, social, tapping at the core of what makes humans thrive or diminish. The voice is absolutely universal, but to the Midwest, I say: You’ve found yourself a spokesman who has — through flawed characters and a flawed landscape — captured the soul of a resilient region and made it important and unforgettable. Shonkwiler paints the Midwest as a lone survivor, and it’s just the resuscitation that the place needs. I rarely spout this so ebulliently, but if you miss this book, you miss a piece of the heartland that shows how hardcore and unbreakable the human spirit truly is.
Leah Angstman’s work has appeared in numerous journals, including Suisun Valley Review, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Tupelo Quarterly, and Shenandoah. She can be found at leahangstman.com.