Moon Up, Past Full
by Eric Shonkwiler
Alternating Current, 2015
Moon Up, Past Full, the new collection of short fiction by Eric Shonkwiler, is not a happy book. Not that it’s dry or dull, because it’s neither of those. It’s not humorless, either, instead full of black comedy that induces winces as much as chuckles. But it is indeed a deeply unhappy book, full of broken protagonists in miserable situations. And it’s deeply affecting and redemptive.
There’s a reason that the faces of drama are of laughter and tears; tragedy’s been with us for a long time, as long as stories have been told. Empathetic misery is powerful. Experiencing secondhand, terrible decisions and even-worse outcomes is almost a joy, because reading about pain allows the reader a wide array of reactions, from catharsis to the schadenfreude point-and-whisper, “that’s not me.” And inside Moon Up, Past Full, all the variations of sadness and melancholy are on display for the lingering touch.
Most of the stories are unconnected by plot or specific location, though the feel of rural American is clear. Whether on the reservation, inside a love triangle meth house, in a survivalist haunt during a suspected epidemic, or riding around after a birthday bowling party, the sense of disrepair and failure is omnipresent. Few of the protagonists have the insight to glean their own place in their shabby worlds, but the reader does. Perhaps the battered hunter in “No Toil, No Tranquility” has the clearest vision; he suspects that the world might be a better place without him in it. Whether he’s wrong or not is up to interpretation. At least he knows something of himself.
Perhaps most resounding stories are the connected tales “My Wakeup” and “Re-Up,” following a young veteran who returns home to find himself unrooted and goalless. His misadventures are predictably aimless and shifting, guided by the winds and those friends-in-arms with even poorer decision making skills. On display here is how powerless the characters in Moon Up really are. They don’t even guide their own destiny. They let others choose their downfall.
It’s a common thread in life as well as in fiction. “It wasn’t me that did it. It was ____ (fill in the blank).” A motto that the wanna-be meth dealer who allows himself to be manipulated into setting up a cookhouse, or the college friend who finds himself on the edge of humanity in “Go21” can hold close to their hearts. They’re not as in touch with the savagery or nihilism of their counterparts and suffer disproportionately for it. A moral to be taken, even if it’s not meant: the punishment for those who don’t own their own decisions is somehow more severe than those who do.
It’s some heavy stuff. And it’s meant to be.
But it’s not fair to say that every story in this collection is a total downer, because they’re not. Some of the pieces, such as that of the reservation cop tracking down an itinerant bootlegger, have milder, softer tones and an undercurrent of love that transcends the downtrodden characters. They’re few and far between, but the redemptive stories allow a glimpse of hope or an accent of, maybe not neon, but pastels anyway, that brightens and transforms the rest.
Throughout Moon Up, the language is crisp and clear, with intermittent poetic prose to spice up the read. “Black,” in particular, cuts through at an opportune time to gift the reader with relief. If the entire book was filled with flowery prose, it would have a different effect, more labyrinthine and impenetrable, but as a flavor duster, it works perfectly. Just the right amount of poetic license. And before every story are wonderful illustrations by artist Christina Collins that serve as lovely wade-ins. When did illustrations fall out of fashion? It’s collaborations by artists such as Collins and Shonkwiler that induce others to join the party again. But only if they’re done as professionally and poignantly as inside this collection.
Why read challenging, depressing literature? Why shine the light on the misery and mistakes humanity continually makes? It forces the reader to shine the light on the darkness within them and, hopefully, come away with answers to questions they didn’t know they had, to find strength when adversity comes knocking on their door, as adversity is wont to do. Eric Shonkwiler doesn’t pretend to know the answers, but he knows that the questions are important and, through his lovely book of fiction Moon Up, Past Full, wants his readers to taste the questions themselves. Maybe they’ll learn something.