on Two-Legged Animal
Eric’s novel, Above All Men, was reviewed by book blogger, Lydia Davis, on her blog, Two-Legged Animal:
“Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men does not suffer fools gladly. The novel is narrated in concise language, in a bleak but restless Midwest that is as much a character as any person.”
“We Need to Talk about David: The Pre-Apocalyptic Atticus Finch of Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men
The Parrish family is trying to get by in a not-unrecognizable U.S. where oil is scarce, money is tight, and the land switches from friend to foe with the wind (literally). There is a body count in David Parrish’s story, but he accepted this already during his service in Costa Rica. The horror of the war has followed him home in the form of frequent, seemingly unprovoked flashbacks and a guilt-imposed obligation to serve others first in even the direst of circumstances. This same life philosophy is responsible for much of his conflict with his wife, Helene, who struggles to keep David and their son, Samuel, happy and healthy for as long as circumstances will allow.
Shadowed by his time in the service, David’s aim is to protect his son, though he disagrees with his wife on how to do so. Within the first couple of chapters, for example, David and Helene disagree about Samuel attending his aunt’s funeral: David doesn’t want him to attend, but Helene wants to give him the option. Danvers, a beloved neighbor, insists: “A funeral ain’t nearly a war, Dave … What kind of man would he be you keep him locked indoors his whole life?” This is at the heart of the story’s conflict: how can a man familiar with the evils of the world succeed in protecting his son? David responds by attempting to be a near-perfect role model.
David-as-role-model often conflicts directly with Helene’s ideas of how to hold the family together. Throughout the story, David’s actions test Helene’s increasing impatience with a husband who seems to be always putting others ahead of his own family. Learning that David has invited a misguided out-of-towner to bring his family to live on David’s property and work for him, Helene fumes, “You haven’t said no to anyone yet, David.” This is the example David wants Samuel to see, but he is also risking his wife and son’s well-being by sharing their already-scant resources.
Not since Atticus Finch has a “good” man been so deserving of ridicule. (I’m infamous among friends for my extreme dislike of Atticus.) Yet, the fact remains: David is a “good” man. Despite risking his family, David can always be counted on to help others with the limited resources he has. And when a child is murdered and David wants to hunt down the killer, Helene puts her foot down … but it’s the ultimate wrong to be righted. Does David risk his family’s well-being for the sake of doing what is Right?
The story’s ultimate conflict resides in the reader. Never mind what David eventually chooses: what should David do? Does he set a poor example if he refuses to get involved? Is it worth risking himself and his family to do what he believes should be done? “Tell me,” Helene says to David, “what you’ll do when it comes down to feeding us or doing the right thing?”
And when all is said and done—and it is a mess—what is Right to do, then?
Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men does not suffer fools gladly. The novel is narrated in concise language representative of David Parrish’s black-or-white moral compass, in a bleak but restless Midwest that is as much a character as any person.”