April 10, 2016: “Gripping the Heel” by Eric Shonkwiler

Welcome to the last post of Books I Got at AWP Week here at Story366. I’ve done seven books now, and while I still have a few new books left on my pile, I’ll save those for regular posts. Again, a little sad that I didn’t get around to half of the book fair to get more , but really, I still have almost seventy books on my desk that I haven’t covered yet, plus several on the way and even more saved in my cart on Amazon, just so I remember them. Tomorrow, I’ll start another week of “ordinary time,” getting to some of the books that have been on my desk the longest.

Today’s book is the second from Alternating Currents Press that I picked up at their offsite reading. I missed the reading by the first author, Carmen Lau (The Girl Wakes), but did catch today’s author, Eric Shonkwiler. He read one story, “For the Man After Me,” and also recited a short from memory. To note, Shonkwiler sports a pretty specific image, that of a modern cowboy, complete with hat, boots, and jeans, along with an easy gait and a calm, quiet demeanor. Even his editor, Leah Angstman, referred to him as a “cowboy author” before I saw him read, so it wasn’t hard to pick out which guy was Shonkwiler in the crowd.

What does that have to do with anything? Not much, really, except that for every story in Moon Up, Past Full, I pictured Shonkwiler, that cowboy, as every protagonist. Weird, really, because I’ve known what a lot of the authors look like so far in Story366—most of them, actually—and I’ve never pictured them as their stories’ protagonists. Is it because Shonkwiler’s characters seem more like cowboys than most protagonist seem like, well, writers? Probably. But I feel silly. I wouldn’t want every character in my books to be seen as a chubby bearded guy in a Cubs hat. Alas, the brain sees what it sees.

I’ve read a few stories from Moon Up, Past Full, but am focusing on the lead, “Gripping the Heel.” This story’s protagonist, Ray, is a guy who’s hit rock bottom. His wife has left him and has cleaned out their house. He’s lost his job. He’s also lost touch with his family, who still lives in his childhood home in town. With nothing on his agenda, nowhere to go, he stops by for a visit, only to find that his brother, Lisle, is in jail (again), and his parents are getting tired of all of it—Lisle, him, the cold, the old tree rotting in the back yard. They hope that Ray can help them out, because they’re getting too old to be playing parent. It’s Ray’s turn, and the story more or less explores whether he’s up to the task.

A lot of this is sounding like a country music song—which plays in the background of a lot of the scenes—but a good one. Shonkwiler has steady, descriptive prose, the details flowing without effort, painting a vivid picture of some bleak scenery. There’s the masculine feel of Hemingway and Carver here, but Shonkwiler is no minimalism, painting rich landscapes and fully investigating the inner thoughts of his protagonists. Not that Ray always has a firm grasp on what’s happening. After his parents’ plea for his help, Ray has a blackout, caused by what causes most blackouts, a hard drunk that leads him even further down the hole he’s dug for himself. The ending of this story is perfect, making me like Ray, “Gripping the Heel,” and Shonkwiler’s writing very much.

So, we are at an end of Books I Got at AWP Week. It’s hilarious that I’ve seen some posts by writer friends from downtown LA again, as this weekend was the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Seems like they could have worked their event together with AWP somehow, as a couple of friends went home for a few days only to turn around and go right back. That’s hardcore, man. Book on.


One thought on “April 10, 2016: “Gripping the Heel” by Eric Shonkwiler

  1. For a while, after meeting you, every protagonist and even some of the minor characters in what I was reading became chubby guys in Cubs hats. You were in Austria-Hungary a lot. And waiting for a passport to get to Ostend, where you were greeted by another guy in a Cubs hat. The only cure: watching Baby Metal perform “Gimme Chocolate” in a loop 40 times. Now no more guys in Cubs hats, just Albino Goths and the Mothra twins + one. The mind seized! This project is great, Mike. What a smart way to share good fiction!


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