Above All Men reviewed on Revolution John

Eric’s novel, Above All Men, received a glowing, in-depth review, In a Land More Familiar, by editor Sheldon Compton on the literary journal, Revolution John:
Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men (available now from MG Press) is a novel set in the not-too-distant future after a war I generally assumed to be inspired by the war for oil we are currently trying to live through. This future is only a few decades from the present day, and Shonkwiler does a good job of not overstepping while making that future not drastically different than today. For example, the lack of television as a luxury is one that comes up both overtly and then also in an implied way for me at least in that the family is often reading during their leisure time. This is the beginning of Shonkwiler’s magical ability to transport with a deft hand. There’s so much more.

For the most part, the world of Above All Men is one where people are placed again in the position of making a living by the strength of their two hands. For the protagonist, David Parrish, this means rising above the horrors of the war he fought in and becoming a good husband and father despite this past. He must also deal with a local coal miner (as this has become the primary energy source) who wants to buy his land for mining and give him a job working for him. But key in this novel, and when it happens at about midpoint it is a gutshot, is the murder of a child. Already struggling, David finds old demons resurfacing as he hunts for the murderer, seeking some kind of justice when justice itself seems to have become the scarcest resource of all.

There is so much to like and enjoy about this debut novel by Shonkwiler, a native of Ohio who has lived and worked all across the country and has now settled for the time being in New Mexico. I immediately appreciated the sparse, direct prose. Shonkwiler isn’t trying to impress anyone, though he does in many poetic instances. I felt during the entirety of the book that I was being told a story by someone who held narrative most important. There are influences stylistically, for sure. The lack of quotation marks to offset dialogue is, I believe, likely an homage or adopted fingerprint from one of Shonkwiler’s literary heroes, Cormac McCarthy. But, of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, especially when you do it as well or better than your hero. More on that later.

“There is so much to like and enjoy about this debut novel, the sparse, direct prose, being told a story by someone who held narrative most important.”

One of many things that struck me as being so well done in this novel was that of character. When those moments of dialogue appear without fanfare, I was never once at a loss for who was talking. This may seem like nothing to celebrate in and of itself, but anyone working in the trade of writing novels will tell you, when you know a character by the words he says, the writer is doing a damn fine job in respect to bringing that character alive on the page.

There were characters I would have liked more of in the novel – primarily that of Red, David’s longtime friend who joined the military with him when they were younger and is in the novel briefly at the beginning, but also, the old man Danver, who helped David get his piece of land in the world. But the characters he decided to give us in the book are as realized as anything you’d want in a novel. David made me want to work harder, be a better man. My heart broke sometimes for his wife, Helene, while other times I wanted her to ease up and let good old David (that complex bastard) be good-hearted to a fault. And O H, David’s good friend, and pretty much about my favorite secondary character, just could not have been better crafted. The immensely likable O H reminded me to be a more honest person and also how a heart could break in ways yet imagined or endured.

“The characters Shonkwiler decided to give us are as realized as anything you’d want in a novel and just could not have been better crafted.”

But where Shonkwiler shined brightest was as a stylist. And it took me a while to finally decide on which front he shined brightest. Was it setting? Highly possible, as the Midwest, the land, the people of that land, were all placed expertly into a fiction this reader bought into immediately and throughout. Was it plot? So close it was scary, since this not-too-distant future is not at all hard to imagine, which makes every single action that takes place that much more dramatic. This could happen, you know? This could really happen soon. Damn. But, I had to go with style for Above All Men. For a moment I’m going to let Mr. Shonkwiler speak for himself.
“They both got out. Red lifted his hand in goodbye and went to the road and David stood by the barn. Danvers’ house was quiet. He walked on to the equipment barn for the loader and threw a few bales of hay from the loft on the scoop. A couple hundred yards into the pasture he set the bales and stock panels up, the cattle already loping toward him. Wheeling the loader around he watched the pasture roll by, saw the town beyond it. On the other side of town a cell tower stood rusting. Years ago he would have seen the red light brighten and fade. The phone company had cut the power to local towers and never restored it, never sent another bill. Most everyone around switched back to landlines.”
I once had a conversation with a writer who said they read somewhere the hardest part of writing was getting a character from one side of the room to the other. I’ve since learned this is so foolishly true. Now, consider the above excerpt. In lesser hands this entire series of events could drop the reader into an instant scan-reading mode. I’ve done it; you’ve done it. We will scan the hell out of pedestrian prose, fattened paragraphs that aren’t really moving the story along. Not here, people. Not by a long shot. And all this while dropping those subtle details that build up the setting and time period, that rusting cell tower and how “everyone around switched back to landlines.” You honestly can’t ask for better storytelling. And here’s the main thing: I can’t place my finger on exactly how Shonkwiler managed to do this so well across the span of an entire novel, but that’s what I was left with – the idea that this young man was in command stylistically in a way I hadn’t encountered since first reading James Salter.

“You honestly can’t ask for better storytelling. I can’t place my finger on exactly how Shonkwiler managed to do this so well across the span of an entire novel. I simply cannot imagine a better result for a debut novel.”

Basically, and this is just flat out truth, I simply cannot imagine a better result for a debut novel. Shonkwiler’s still in the midst of his tour to promote this book, and I’m already scanning MG Press’ website for his next title. Come on, Eric, come back from the road and write. We’re waiting, bud.”

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