The world of Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men is best described by one of the novel’s own characters: “It’s all illusions is what it is. You might as well wind the clock back a hundred years and call it 1930. Airplanes and spaceships. Your boy probably don’t know we had men on the moon. Probably wouldn’t believe you if you told him.”
Shonkwiler himself describes the events his characters live through as a “slow apocalypse.” The world hasn’t yet ended; it’s in the middle of the process. Set in the Midwest of the future, around 2030, the novel’s main character, David Parrish, a war veteran and a farmer, struggles to hold his life together both emotionally and financially as the world around him collapses at an achingly slow pace. Water is scarce, fossil fuels run out, dust storms pound the arid land, and eventually all power runs out completely.
Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are easy to make, and indeed, like McCarthy’s, Shonkwiler’s prose is devoid of quotation marks, dialogue camouflaged on the page. Even David Parrish’s relentless attempts to shield his son from the cruelty and horrors of the world, magnified by the slow degradation and eradication of society, mirror the man’s yearning to protect the boy’s innocence in The Road. However, Above All Men is much more political, much more concerned with how and why the world is the way it is now.
The world’s collapse in Above All Men is not caused by any earth-shattering event; rather it is caused by decades of recklessness by our politicians and government, helped along by a world war and the bombing of numerous American cities—a result of arrogant and selfish American foreign policy. Rather than inventing his own fictional event to create his apocalypse, Shonkwiler simply assumes government policies remain the same between now and the time of his novel, maybe getting a little more short-sighted and reckless.
It is this sense of reality, how little the reader is required to suspend disbelief, that makes this novel so haunting, and at times, frightening. The saddest images Shonkwiler conjures of his dystopian future are those that seem the most mundane; that in this collapsing world, thirteen isn’t a young age anymore, or that a sherriff’s job is no longer to enforce the law, but to guide those whom he protects and serves through the apocalypse to their deaths as peacefully as possible. This is dystopian literature through a realist lens, with much of the conflict coming not from its characters attempts to merely survive, but just to get by. David and his wife, Helene still worry about money, their son’s schooling, and, more importantly, their son’s future, David refusing to sell off part of his land so he can leave his son something he hopes he can make a living with.
Above All Men can at times feel meandering, as though Shonkwiler didn’t quite know where he was taking the story, and one begins to wonder whether there is an end in sight at all, or whether the novel will simply peter out when its characters’ lives can’t get any worse. Within the scope of the novel, though, this isn’t necessarily a negative criticism. The meandering narrative works; as David trudges through his everyday life, trying to make a living from his farm in the face of ever worsening conditions, the reader feels the same sense of chaos and nihilism David must.
The biggest issue with the novel is the underdevelopment of some characters. While the main concern of the novel is David, one is left with questions regarding those closest to him. David’s mother could be cut from the novel entirely and it wouldn’t change a thing; Danvers is little more than a cut-and-paste “wise old man” figure who gave David his farm with no explanation as to why other than that he is “like family” to the Parrishes. Helene seems only as complicated as the depth of her ability to find reasons to be upset with David, apparently present only to tend the house and garden and to provide personal repercussions to the choices David makes in the name of “doing his best.” The most confusing part about Helene, though, is that she’s inexplicably a bottomless well of forgiveness, taking David back with little reluctance no matter how many times he leaves her on some moral crusade, despite the fact that she is shown to be perfectly capable of getting by without him.
Perhaps this lack in development of supporting characters is attributable to Above All Men’s sparseness, which is one of its strongest aspects; it reads like a short story, without a sentence wasted. David, his struggles to hold his family, his farm, and himself together are its only concerns, and other things inevitably fall by the wayside. The prose itself is in turns minimalistic and dense; Shonkwiler uses a cinematic narration style, presenting everything, from the dust storm-riddled cornfields of its Midwestern landscape to chaotic and confusing fight scenes without commentary, letting all the horror, truth, and beauty show through by itself.
Despite its issues with characters, Above All Men is revelatory. The choice to set the novel in the midst of the world’s collapse, instead of after it, is an inspired one, allowing Shonkwiler to give his characters recognizable struggles, wants, and needs; an everyday humanity and relatability so often lost in works set in an apocalyptic landscape. It is in Shonkwiler’s ability to place the reader in a dystopian future, but still worry whether David will make enough money from his harvest to last the year that is the true accomplishment of this novel.
March 2014, MG Press
$15, paperback, 267 pages
—Reviewed by William Wright
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