Eric Shonkwiler, 8th Street Power & Light
Publisher: MG Press
2016, 226 pages, paperback, $15
THIS MOTHERFUCKER RUNS. 8th Street Power & Light hits the ground running from page one and doesn’t let up until page 226. And since my goal in this review is to put the book in your hands, if Shonkwiler’s type of sprint is your thing, and to keep it out of your hands if it isn’t, let’s talk about how it runs.
The narrative follows Samuel Parrish, an all-around badass, a seemingly untrained yet extremely competent fist-fighter/knife-fighter/gunslinger, who works as a lawman in a post-apocalyptic trying-to-rebuild Midwestern city. Samuel navigates the divisionary politics of the budding city, the criminal underworld of the drug trade, the growing feelings he has for his best friend’s girlfriend, and his own philosophical questioning of the sacrifices societies are willing to make for order and comfort.
It goes without saying that if we’re talking putting this book in your hand or not, the post-apocalyptic setting is an important factor. Essentially, Shonkwiler is evoking the conventions of a town in a Western. Samuel, our takes-no-shit sheriff, strolls the town to the point that this book could probably simply be titled Samuel Strolls the Town, and he meets the other characters constantly at the breakfast place, at the saloon, on the street, etc. The town has modern weapons and modern vehicles, but the taste and feel of Shonkwiler’s post-apocalyptic Midwestern town is that of a Western frontier town with a loose-cannon sheriff and those floppy door things.
However, the aspect that makes his post-apocalyptic setting feel new is the way he humanizes his settlers through alcoholism and drug dependency. Shonkwiler depicts a group of people who have been scarred and broken by the world’s collapse. They are attempting to piece back together what they had, while also carrying the emotional trauma of losing it. The depiction of a society clinging to reconstructive optimism, even as they self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, rings genuine. Through Samuel, the narrative asks the interesting questions of a post-apocalyptic setting: what sacrifices are we willing to make to reinstate the image of civility? In a devastated world with danger always looming, is utilitarianism the route to take?
Back to the running (style):
As I mentioned, Samuel strolls. He doesn’t stop strolling:
By evening the clouds had thinned, and it was cold, Going north on 8th he watched a train leave the station and round off into the coming night. He followed the creek as the train did, skirting the city. A football stadium on his right, university dorms and halls, courtyard and greens, all dark. He was well into unlit territory when the streetlamps went up, and the night beyond them came darker, scraps of cloud carried off and the rest of the sky black. Across the river, a granary station. The side of a silo was lit up by a barrelfire, and he went to the creek edge to get a better look. A square of light that didn’t waver or dim. Nothing else. He moved on. Past the university, neighborhoods grew into spotty woods. He caught Vine and followed it to Whittier, walking beside the crumbling sidewalk, and he cut across a yard and stopped at a red house.
The novel is full of paragraphs like this one, which I feel is the most polarizing consideration. This pace can reduce emotional weight and resonance if the narrative flies through moments too quickly. Additionally, the pace affects the functioning of what readers generally expect of a chapter structure. By moving so much and so quickly, the chapters don’t ebb and swell as traditional chapters do; they instead seem to be indicators of distance, like the white lines on a running track, used to mark the length of the narrative sprint.
In defense of Shonkwiler’s style, this quick, restless narrative pace keeps the reader engaged in the action plot throughout the entirety of the novel. The book wants to be interesting on every page and is determined to not allow the reader to even consider becoming bored. After having read my fair share of dreadfully boring literary fiction that completely disregards a reader’s attention span, I can respect this impulse.
Don’t pick up 8th Street Power and Light if you are looking for a slower-burn with careful interiority and character development. Do pick it up if you are looking for a fast, interesting, post-apocalyptic romp that asks interesting questions (perhaps especially so in MAGA-Land 2017) about community and what we are willing to sacrifice for civil “progress.”
Eric Shonkwiler is the author of Above All Men, a novel, and Moon Up, Past Full, a collection of novellas and stories. His writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lit Pub, and The Millions. Born and raised in Ohio, he received his MFA from University of California-Riverside, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone.