Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a fan of proper punctuation. Question mark at the end of an interrogatory sentence, comma to separate elements in a sentence, quotation marks to indicate a quotation. Period. In my happy, shiny world, you better have a damned good reason to mess with proper punctuation.
Eric Shonkwiler has a damned good reason to mess with proper punctuation.
In Shonkwiler’s debut novel about working man woes and dust storms in a not-too-distant future, the plainspoken characters living hardscrabble lives cannot afford floating frills. Sweet and curly quotation marks would be embellishments that no one in these pages could abide. One more thing to dust.
The novel explores a bleak version of the future, in which war and mega-storms have destroyed the country’s oil resources, cities are bleeding their populations into the rural Midwest, and meth-heads roam the drought-stricken countryside. In general, dust clouds the horizon. Desolation and desperation prevail.
David Parrish has recently returned home from his duty as combat medic in a bloody Central American war, the memories of which haunt him. He lives somewhere in the Midwest with his wife and son on a farm bequeathed to him by an elderly neighbor no longer able to work the land. Parrish struggles. You name it, and this stoic, able-bodied farmer is struggling with it. He’s got to hold his family together, to help his neighbors, to keep his cattle alive, to weed his fields, to leave a legacy, and to keep the dust at bay. Last but not least, he’s compelled to answer a call to justice that—like the dust—threatens to consume him.
Parrish relies on a steady diet of the ordinary, the necessary, and the plain to keep from being torn from conflicting sides. “When he got into town he tried to be occupied with the shape of pavement and the paint lines and to not look anyone in the eye.” This character has a hard time not looking people in the eye. He can’t not be straight with folks. Yet he also has an inclination to withdraw from his family in order to wander the neighborhood and beyond, performing triage on the wounded world. “He looked like his mother,” Parrish decides about his son, Samuel. “All he had of his father were the eyes and the hands, and he thought he might have something else of his, the call, the wandering.” Underlying it all is the temptation to abandon the life he has been struggling to build on this land. “Feel like I don’t know a damn thing, sometimes. With these storms I’m half-tempted to pull stakes, go someplace where the dirt ain’t trying to eat us.”
In this novel, the sky and light and dust are characters unto themselves. “… Down a sidestreet was a row of empty lots, the houses burned, blackened posts sticking up out of the dust … and David saw all the powerpoles had been stripped of their lines. The sky was oppressive for its unwiring.”
In another passage, toward the end of the book: “Everything the light touched was dust, covered over, feet high. It was as if the house had fallen upon Mars. There were high drifts across the road that rose at fenceposts and troughed between like a long stone wave and where it was able the dust rolled evenly across field and yard. Shadowed undulations in it like the paths of snakes.”
Despite the bleakness, you want to roadtrip to this town with a camera and go nuts. Shonkwiler’s description promises starkly beautiful—painfully beautiful shots. His imagery is that arresting.
Also impressive is Shonkwiler’s deliberate pacing, which moves at a slow trot, in keeping with the slowing of time in a world becoming unwired. Much of the action takes place on horseback or afoot. You can’t help but feel Parrish’s—and the Ohio-bred author’s—connection to the place. As readers, we walk fence lines with the character. We move from shafts of light in the house to horse tack in the barn to lines painted on the road. We smell and taste and feel the swirls of dust rising, as well as the omens of approaching storms. The economy of language—not to mention, of punctuation—serves the narrative well. And the novel’s denouement is unexpected but sweet. Sweet like the smell of air after a good, strong rain. Not sweet like candy-coated. Not like that at all.
“The state of the world in this book is born from my frustrations with our world—the failures of government, a refusal to adapt to changes in climate and resources—I wanted to see where we’d wind up if we continued on this path, and that led me to the various disasters the characters face in this story,” said Shonkwiler in Athens, OH newspaper The Post. If the ruination in Above All Men is indeed the direction in which we’re heading, we can dare hope there’ll be characters like David Parrish huddled with us in the ashes. Meanwhile, we can hope Eric Shonkwiler’s future is fraught with books as honed as this one.