Saturday, December 21, 2013

Above All Men - Eric Shonkwiler

When a country collapses, what becomes of a man - not only materially, but morally? In Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men (forthcoming from MG Press in 2014), David Parrish is a husband and father, recently returned from a war which has left America stretched and stressed to near-breaking. When a powerful storm destroys the country's oil rigs, a domino chain of natural and man-made events is set in motion that challenge Parrish and his family's survival, and that test Parrish's soul.

Parrish, his wife and child live on a farm somewhere in the mid-west, with an elderly neighbor next door, and another family to whom Parrish has offered a small homestead in exchange for help on the farm. Parrish is a stoic, capable man in the way that farmers and military men often are, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, one that often leaves him torn between his family and others in need. When his son's best friend is murdered, Parrish struggles to both care for his family but also answer the call for justice.

While the imagined stages of societal decline and even some of the basic plot elements did not strike me as especially original, Shonkwiler creates a very distinctive and memorable story through his own writing of it. The landscape is bleak but striking, full of haunting images - fields and mines, small towns and old farmhouses, coyotes and dusters and big sky, and one feels Parrish's elemental connection to the place. The details bring the reader close into the small moments of the story: We walk the fence line with Parrish, feeling the sharp edge of wire and the rough of wood; we practically breathe in the dust that rises up out of nowhere, beautiful and terrifying, coating everything in its path and smothering out the crops. We share his sense of foreboding and feel his fierce love for his family. The author's careful pacing very effectively conveys the slowing of time in a world without machinery (and eventually without electricity, or running water) and the straightforward, unadorned narrative, too, reflects a world and a man stripped down to their cores.

If I had any quibbles, they were small, and probably only even attracted my attention because Above All Men overall is such a solid debut. The most relevant of them was that somehow I missed the specific motive for the murder beyond the villain's innate villainery - though maybe this lack actually speaks to the profound moral vacuum of the new social order, for the only thing more horrifying than a murder is a murder for which there exists no reason except the act of violence itself, the absence of reason only one more measure of our collective disrepair.

Above All Men is a somewhat intense read, testament to the portrayal of this future world, which is not all that comfortably far-fetched. It is one, sadly, we could envision, and it made me rather conscious of my dependence on modern conveniences and even a little anxious about them. But it also left me thinking that if the world were to collapse, you would sure want to know a guy like David Parrish.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary advance review copy of Above All Men.

Happy reading!

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