Art is my favorite time machine. Paintings let you look through the eyes of the past. Some music sounds like it’s from the future, but for the most part, the form works backward by mood or a timeline the listener personally tags to the song.
Literature though — that frequently goes to the future or to the past. Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men has found a unique way to do both. His addition to dystopian novels takes us to a scary future that is progressively becoming more like the 1930s. This is a world with dust bowl storms, shortages of oil, unreliable electric and water supplies, questionable law and order. It’s the story of David Parrish, husband to Helene and father to young Samuel, navigating the challenges of the new world and trying to maintain a balance between duty to family and duty to justice.
Backstory is implied more than dwelled on. We are told there has been a major war that has changed the way America exists. Infrastructure hasn’t completely crumbled, but it’s, at best, unreliable. The effect is time travel to pre-Superpower America. The specifics aren’t necessary; the focus is more local to David’s family and surrounding community, but the amount of history shared is enough to draw the reader into the world and feel what is at stake. The words are as urgent as the world. Early in the story, David has dreams that expose his fears for his son’s legacy:
The dream had caught up with him now that he was still, and he saw it in flashes of teeth. He thought of everything he had, of Samuel and Helene, the farm. He was breathing hard, and he turned to Helene to see if she’d noticed and found her looking at him. She took his hand but her grip turned hard at the sight of his eyes and he guttered like a flame.
David is tested by several conflicts. He is dealing with traumatic memories of the war. He wants to shelter his son at the same time that he wants to train him for the new world. He wants to provide for his family, but he also wants to help his neighbors. He wants to preserve ownership in a land that he is beginning to wonder if it will have any future value. All of these conflicts build the character and relationships within the family. He is struggling with the balance between these ‘micro’ duties to his immediate family and the ‘macro’ moral obligations he feels for the outside world. It’s an extreme crisis of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The pinnacle conflict is the murder of a local child. This event brings all of these pressures to maximum capacity for David, Helene, and Samuel. The ending has that magic touch of being surprising while also being exactly what it had to be. This is the kind of book you’ll want your friends to read so you can talk about the choices the characters make. You’ll agree with some, and others will make you mad.
The book draws comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, because of his apocalyptic classic, The Road, and because of the style of the prose. Shonkwiler doesn’t use dialogue tags. At times, this requires reading some of the exchanges more than once to clarify who has said what, but the style grows with the development of the story and seems to serve the purpose of making the exchanges more intimate, almost voyeur-like. The characters are blunt. They say only what they have to say, and so does the story. It all works well together and is incredibly powerful. There is life in letting it happen. There is power in what they don’t say:
Already Samuel had seen death, had felt it. He wondered if that was the first step, making acquaintances. And then how many steps were between Samuel and himself. Himself and Red. Helene opened the bedroom door as he was taking off his boots. He looked up at her.
Give me some time. Give me a few years.
He set his boots by the front door. He said nothing.
It also shares a dystopian space with this year’s National Book Award finalist, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Both of these manage to find a more optimistic approach than The Road. Even when all is lost, all is not lost. My favorite moments between David and Helene weren’t when she was serving as his moral challenger, but when they had moments of touching intimacy among the threat of loss:
Did you ever imagine yourself getting so old?
We’re not old.
I know. But did you?
No. He pulled her closer so that he didn’t have to look at her. I think I skipped from the church steps to the hospital to us sittin’ in rocking chairs on the front porch.
She laughed against him. They were quiet for a while. What if we left?
He let a slow breath through his nose. Fogel mentioned folks are leaving all over.
Trains full of people running out of cities.
Maybe they have the right idea.
She had said it lightly and he said nothing else but the idea stayed with him.
I did wonder about one character that didn’t get to have moments as real as the above exchange. David has a mother in town whose fit within the story invites questions. She lives on her own, and David is never really concerned with how she is faring, nor does she seem on his radar for concerns or plans of the future, so she never integrates into the story of his moral conflicts. This might stand out to me partly because David’s ‘code’ in all other aspects of the story is so strongly developed. Still, Above All Men is clearly one heck of a ride in a time machine. It’s also an awesome debut novel and a wonderful work of art.