Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Sometimes there's a book that just resonates with you. Sometimes you come across a book that you just want to tell everyone to read. I love it when that happens. I love it even more when it happens with a book that I never suspected would make me want to accost perfect strangers in bookstores and libraries and grocery stores. Okay, not grocery stores since it's not carried there. And I love it when it makes me want to interrupt perfect strangers I've been eavesdropping on when they start discussing their book club or books in general. Because this pusher kind of person is not me at all. So I love it when a book makes me a whole different person. Nickolas Butler's gorgeous, melancholy novel Shotgun Lovesongs, a paean to male friendship, small towns, and the Midwest is just such a book.

Set in the small farming community of Little Wing, WI and narrated by four friends and one of their wives, this is very much a novel of place. The four men have been friends for a long time but ten or so years into their adult lives their friendships have changed, shifted, and they have to figure out what they are to each other now, whether they want to hold onto their closeness or let it drift away just as the boom times have drifted away from the town. Hank is a farmer, the friend who stayed behind, never leaving Little Wing. He married his high school sweetheart, Beth, and they are raising a family on the farm that is in Hank's blood. Ronnie left town to ride on the rodeo circuit but alcoholism drove him home again and then a traumatic brain injury planted him firmly back in the community he tried so hard to escape. Kip went off to Chicago to make a fortune as a broker. Despite his success, he still feels a pull to Little Wing, coming back to get married and to buy up, renovate, and repurpose the old mill in town. And there's Lee who used his heart's connection to the land and the people to write an album that propelled him into rock star fame and marriage to a famous actress but who still comes home to escape into a private normalcy and to heal when his public life threatens to tear him down.

Each of the four men and Hank's wife Beth narrate the novel so that the ties and friendships are open to the reader in all their complexity, offering various perspectives on each man, how he fits into the group, the tensions between them, and the unfussy, understated caring of their deep love for each other as well. From the uncomplicated friendships of boyhood, the group has changed, grown, and matured into very different men.  The changing dynamic between them causes them all to wonder what is worth holding onto and what it is time to put away as a childish thing. There are no explosions or fireworks here, just a slow and steady, direct, and personal tale of community, the family we create, and the pull of our past juxtaposed with dreams for the future. There are misunderstandings, betrayals, and fears but they are all a part of the reimagining of the men's relationship to each other and as a whole group. Butler pits the desire to leave this battered but serviceable people and place with the deep call to stay or to come back and has it play out in the true and authentic lives of these very real seeming characters.

The story is beautifully written with a heavy Midwestern sensibility, down to earth and of the earth. But it is not provincial, instead being a thoughtful and intimate piece of commonplace to which we can all relate. It is a bittersweet story, one of maturing, a belonging to place, and rooted in small but perfect details. It is a stunning and wonderful novel, real and true and emotional.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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