I think this may be the first short story collection I’ve reviewed here. There’ve been a few linked sets – Judy Chicurel’s If I’d known You were Going to Be This Beautiful… springs to mind as does Sara Taylor’s The Shore – but Nickolas Butler’s is the only one I can think of filled with standalone pieces. I know many readers will tell me I’m missing out – and I have tried – but my natural inclination is for a longer piece of work. I do make exceptions for the likes of Helen Dunmore, and Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs was such a fine piece of writing that Beneath the Bonfire just had to be read.
It’s made up of ten stories – some a mere few pages others lengthier, all firmly rooted in smalltown America. In ‘Rainwater’ a grandfather remembers how to help his grandson discover the world when it seems the boy’s wild mother may not return. ‘Morels’ reunites three old friends, one of whom has a smart new life in the city, but things go horribly wrong. In ‘Leftovers’ a man watches his wife clear out his dead mother’s fridge and comes to a momentous conclusion. ‘Sweet Light Crude’ sees an ageing environmentalist take an oil man hostage, knowing that it will be his last hurrah. A friendship is tested to breaking point in ‘Sven and Lily’. These five brief outlines give a flavour of the terrain covered by Butler’s collection which ranges far and wide through the universalities of life.
Many of Butler’s themes will be familiar to readers of his novel: male friendship, nature and our sometimes troubled relationship with it, chance, the compromises and collusions of smalltown life, and, of course, love. His writing is often striking, polished phrases are slipped in with ease: ‘his sunburn now a suit of pain’; ’Her face had been made into a jigsaw puzzle’; ‘His viciousness and kindness meshed together to form their own cage’ – are a smattering of the ones that stood out for me. There’s a wonderful image describing a couple grown apart when the husband imagines calling his wife from a payphone, listening to her answering then hearing her walking away without hanging up, leaving him there until he grows old in his callbox. Another gorgeous example comes from the eponymous story as a young woman swimming underneath a frozen lake sees the bonfire of Christmas trees above, unsure if she can trust the man she’s come to love. It’s as fine a collection as fans of Shotgun Lovesongs could hope for. If I had to pick a favourite it would be ‘Apples’ about a happily married couple, together for many years, but I’m a hopeless romantic.