Eric’s novel, Above All Men, received a glowing, in-depth review by author Schuler Benson on the great literary resource website, The Lit Pub:
“Above All Men puts beneath a cracked magnifying glass the panorama of what dust returning to dust could really look like. This guy’s writing is alive.”
“Shonkwiler’s streamlined approach to writing dialogue creates characters’ conversations that bleed into their movements and actions in a way that feels more like verse than prose.”
“The way Shonkwiler duels these two personalities against one another is brilliant. Watching this dichotomy unfold is nothing short of a rollercoaster, and, for me, the book’s crowning achievement.”
“Amid stark praise for Above All Men’s uncanny breathing of life into the Midwest is the irony that in order to accomplish this, Eric Shonkwiler shows us how the Midwest finally death-rattles and dies. Eric Shonkwiler’s debut literary fiction novel, Above All Men, puts beneath a cracked magnifying glass the panorama of what dust returning to dust could really look like.
I’m not a book reviewer. I find it difficult to convey honestly how a book hits me to people who have not read and experienced the same things I have. It’s a lot like music that way. This makes writing a book review seem like a hell of a task from the front end, and I seldom find a book that grabs me enough to warrant the time and effort it takes me to write and place a review. In saying this, I hope it’ll serve as a preface to my maybe covering some aspects of Shonkwiler’s writing that may otherwise not be highlighted in a typical review, and it will give you an idea of how much this book reached me. Because Above All Men warrants all the time, effort, and honesty I can give it. This guy’s writing is alive.
The book opens with a dream sequence in the mind of protagonist, David Parrish. I’m always curious about how the authors of books/stories I’ve really enjoyed go about finding a place to begin. It would make sense for Above All Men to begin inside of a dream, as the writing style carries on in this ethereal dream state for the remainder of the novel. The barren landscape of a future United States serves as a perfect stomping ground for the figurative ghosts that haunt the novel. And Shonkwiler’s streamlined approach to writing dialogue creates an unexpected accompaniment fit for a haunting; characters’ conversations bleed into their movements and actions in a way that feels, at times, more like verse than prose. Not exposition punctuated with speech, but something more ritualistic. Incantations. Hymns given to rhythm and unencumbered by grammatical tradition. Shonkwiler’s poetry background shines through most prominently in the way his characters talk to one another; they’re following a beat. It doesn’t always work for other authors. It works here.
If a line exists between spoiling surprises by giving away too much detail, and delivering a vague outline by holding back too much detail, I’m not aware of where that line falls. And if I were to have it pointed out for me, I’d more than likely err on the side of not saying enough than of blabbing too much, so I'll keep the synopsis brief. The story revolves around Parrish, a PTSD-stricken veteran of a future American war fought abroad. Above All Men introduces a post-war Parrish, who’s settled somewhat awkwardly into a role as a farmer struggling to make ends meet and trying to hold his family together. In the midst of scratching to survive in post-collapse rural America, and dealing with food, water, oil, and resource shortages, Parrish must also contend with changing environmental factors that have ushered in a second Dust Bowl. When a child in town is murdered, the death rips open old wounds for Parrish, and he takes matters into his own hands to find the killer and to exact his own form of revenge-cum-justice from a skewed, yet instinctual, moral compass.
What we’re given here is a look at a man’s past, how events that befell him before he became a family man come to govern how he moves himself forward after becoming a more active husband and father. We’re given a look at the ties between family, friends, and neighbors, and how quickly those ties corrode away when polite society grinds to a halt. At surface level, David Parrish is a hard-working farmer, a devoted husband, and a father who wants nothing more than to shelter his son from a world Parrish couldn’t keep from dissolving. Just beneath this veneer, however, is the soldier, the David Parrish who found himself, much like Vietnam-era G.I.’s, in a foreign landscape where the strongest currency is atrocity, and where he who possesses the greatest tolerance for taking and inflicting pain is king. The way Shonkwiler duels these two personalities against one another is brilliant. The same man who’d do anything to keep his son from attending a funeral and seeing first-hand the evidence of mortality, is just a frame away from snapping into a mode where the most productive tack is violence. Watching this dichotomy unfold, fracture Parrish, and eventually resolve itself in what author Frank Bill calls “sparse and poetic” prose, is nothing short of a rollercoaster, and, for me, the book’s crowning achievement.
Above All Men puts readers front-row for a study in the difference between justice and revenge, and how that difference may exist as a much more fluid entity in a dystopian future than the run-and-gun pundit commentary that pervades our online world. By taking us to the future, Shonkwiler paints a picture, sometimes bleak, sometimes horrifying, of our frontier history. And ultimately, amidst turmoil, lawlessness, panic, fear and doubt, we’re shown that love may not conquer all, but it’s strong enough to compel us forward. That honor may not save a man, but that it can point him in the right direction.”
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