In 2015, Eric Shonkwiler set a high bar with his novel, Above All Men. Now he is back with 8th Street Power & Light, which revisits the world of his debut novel and clears its bar with ease. This is a great book filled with everything Shonkwiler fans should now expect: page-turning suspense, moral tension, memorable characters, and well-landed endings.
8th Street takes place in a post-apocalyptic Midwest where people are trying to rebuild a stable society. They share idealism. They hope to establish the kind of city people will want to move to and one that would serve as a model for people rebuilding elsewhere. The central beacon is 8th Street Power & Light, and entity which is equal parts government, gang, and utility company. Just like all societies, there is a gap between the ideal and the real. This gap is where all the novel’s fun happens, led by Samuel, the son of Above All Men’s main character, David Parrish. Sam has grown now and lives with the legacy of the first book while facing new challenges of his own. He falls for his best friend’s girl. He is trying to keep the city clean of meth and bootleg liquor, but finds himself caught in a dirty web that will challenge his ability to trust everyone’s morality, including his own.
You don’t have to have read Above All Men to enjoy or to follow the action of 8th Street Power & Light. Shonkwiler builds on that world for sure, but naturally moves forward with this new one. His characters won’t be slowed by backstory. Their present is too urgent, and the effect of this is strong realism. These characters either already know the backstory so there is no need to talk about it, or the backstory was so intense their only desire is to keep moving forward. Throughout the novel, Sam is almost always on the move. In the post-apocalypse maybe that is how you know you have reclaimed the old way of life: when you can stop moving.
The book takes place in 21 chapters. They aren’t too short or too long, and just like Sam, they keep moving. The story is almost always driven by the action. We don’t spend too much time inside the character’s minds, and are shown more by what they do and say. In Above All Men, the characters often had brief and blunt exchanges. Maybe this was the difference of their problems or their generations, but I appreciated how the characters in 8th Street Power & Light used more words to navigate their conflicts. Some of the problems Sam’s parents faced in the past were like the ones Sam and Johanna encounter here, including evaluating the decision to stay or to flee the town. One of the things I highlighted in my review of Above All Men was the brevity of that conversation with David and Helene. In 8th Street, the expansion of this conversation between Sam and Johanna provided some of the more riveting and tender moments of the book and showcased Shonkwiler’s range.
It’s a range that continually surprised me as a reader. Some of the most poetic images of the novel occur when the action does pause. When we do go inside Sam’s thoughts. The difference really is night and day:
The sun had just gone behind the buildings across the street. The air in the apartment hung thick with vapor from the shower. He draped the rag over the shower curtain and picked up the blood soaked handkerchief that she’d taken off him that morning and set it in the sink to wash. He took off his shirt and the bandaging, undoing the sleeves and letting the shirt drop. He looked at the entry wound and prodded it, pulled back the skin and let it go. It occurred to him that his insides were perfectly black and always had been, that light was foreign to his flesh.
Once again, the post-apocalyptic motif lets Shonkwiler explore universal concepts of morality. With the world stripped of contemporary distraction, the characters reconstructing it face utilitarian questions whose complexity is open to perspective. To Sam, it’s frustratingly complex:
I guess I just don’t believe that we can let ten people get crushed at the fringes so that a thousand can live happily. I don’t like that math. Pain is heavier than comfort.
For others, the answer is easier.
Look. Aaron rocked his head from side to side. It’s not the simplest way of living, but people are happy here. Living better than they have been in years. If you want to weigh that against dead drug addicts, be my guest. But we didn’t invent the habit, man. It just followed us here.
These kind of questions are around us all every day, but we can be insulated from them by the comforts of the modern world. In the world of Shonkwiler’s books, there is no such protection. Sam has to face these questions and the complexity increases as he uncovers the mysteries of 8th Street. Sam demands the reader’s attention because he refuses to hide even when it would be the safer choice.
These pair of novels remind me favorably of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, but Shonkwiler seemed to find an even better balance than McCarthy did in the sparsity of the prose and the handling of violence. I vote for a third one.