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Above All Men
By Eric Shonkwiler
Midwest Gothic Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Set in a post-collapse America only a few short years in the future, Above All Men by Eric Shonkwiler, tells the story of David Parrish and his family on a cattle farm. Despite its Christian tract title, Above All Men charts the everyday struggles and tragedies of living in a society slowly decaying. Shonkwiler weaves this post-collapse narrative together with tightly written prose and a notable lack of infodumping. When we first meet David, he is buying diesel in the nearby town of Dixon. It is a grim replay of the late Seventies oil shocks. He meets his fellow farmers and deals with the rationing and shortages. These little touches make the realities of the post-collapse society profoundly acute. On top of oil shortages, the cell towers don't function any more, and there are mass migrations out of the cities. This is the United States reduced to the conditions of modern-day Congo or Myanmar.
David lives with his wife Helene and his teenage son Samuel. For a time his fellow vet buddy Red lives with them, but, as is Red's wont, he skips out again. Red and David fought in the wars, seeing action in Costa Rica. When a new family moves in to Dixon, we learn that O H Reckard was a Marine and fought in Mexico. The Reckards, O H, his wife Delia and daughter Melanie, are African-Americans who escaped the strife in Atlanta.
What Shonkwiler does is remarkable, especially for a novel that has its feet firmly established in science fiction. He describes the past in dribs and drabs, the occasional hints here and there. When David and O H reminisce about their war experiences, we hear a lot mentioned for the first time, but the explanations still remain elusive. The war stories get buried beneath post-traumatic stress, bone dry sarcasm, and both men being rather taciturn by nature.
On top of the post-collapse economic situation, dusters become more and more frequent. The dust covers the topsoil and chokes the cattle. David has to contend with coyotes harassing his cattle and the threat of the water supply drying up. When diesel finally runs out, David and O H face the harsh prospect of hand harvesting. As technology fails, the circumference of connection between communities shrivels. The novel begins with talk about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. By mid-novel, the tone becomes more medieval.
The monotony and struggle of farm life shatters when Melanie is murdered. Delia, drowned in grief, eventually abandons O H. Both O H and David begin a desperate search for the killer. O H finally leaves Dixon, pushed to the very brink of sanity. Then David returns to his quest to find the killer. Along the way he encounters abandoned towns, feral meth heads, and highways overrun by the shifting dunes. He wrestles with his demons in haunting dreams. The dreams and surreal landscapes battered by dusters were described with the bloody rawness found in The Red Badge of Courage.
Above All Men is a relentlessly bleak depiction of human struggle. It is science fiction written with literary panache and a rare confidence. This is Shonkwiler's first novel and he aims for the bleachers. As someone living in the more rural section of Minnesota, I could relate to Shonkwiler's description of isolation and alienation endemic in rural communities. (Granted, Rochester, Minnesota is a town with 100,000 people, but like O H Reckard, the culture shock can be intense. Overall it is a nice place to live, but it is not close to either La Crosse, Wisconsin or the Twin Cities. There are days when I feel like I'm orbiting Neptune.) Rural life has a different rhythm than urban life, revolving around crops and the harvest. While some media outlets like to depict rural communities as the last outposts of Real 'Merica, it is a lazy stereotype and I'm sick of hearing it. Piloting a John Deere doesn't give one a monopoly on authenticity. And nothing reeks of fakeness like pimping one's authenticity. Unlike the carnival barkers who call themselves pundits and the slow-witted schmucks who hang on their every word, Above All Men doesn't come across as fake. It possesses a compelling narrative with realistic characters beset by trials that would challenge even the hardiest of souls.
My only minor quibble is in its writing. Some passages seem a little too on-the-nose in its description. For a novel that plays its hand so close to the chest, these passages project the hoof-prints of writing workshops and a little too much polish. The other is the lack of quotation marks. Granted, Shonkwiler's novel markets itself as a literary novel, hence using the lack of quotation marks like Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. But, as it stands, this novel could function well enough on its own with conventionally written dialogue. (Sometimes the lack of quotation marks leads to inevitable confusion. Who said what? Did he think that or say that?) Since this is a first novel, these flaws are minor and don't take away from the high regard it deserves. The lack of quotation marks is a purely subjective thing. Your Miles May Vary.
Above All Men comes highly recommended, especially to those seeking science fiction tales in a rural setting.
Out of 10/10
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