Regular readers of this blog will probably know that I’ll take any opportunity to bang on about Nickolas Butler’s debut Shotgun Lovesongs. I even managed to get it into my first Six Degrees of Separation post. No surprise, then, that The Hearts of Men was one of the books I was looking forward to most this year, eager anticipation tempered by a little nervousness the bar having been set so high. Set in Wisconsin and spanning nearly six decades, Butler’s novel explores what it is to be a man in America through the lens of two very different boys who form a kind of friendship in 1962.
Nelson is a lonely thirteen-year-old, bullied at school, always careful to do everything well. His father is quick to beat him, often turning his violent attentions on Nelson’s mother. When Jonathan turns up at his birthday party, the only guest to attend, Nelson cherishes hopes of a friendship with this older boy, hopes that are bolstered when Jonathan singles him out at Scout camp. Morally upright but naïve, Nelson catches the attention of the camp’s leader emboldening him into taking a decision he’s convinced is right but which will further cast him out. Three decades later, Jonathan is driving his own son to camp, planning to meet Nelson on the way. Both men have taken very different paths: Nelson is a Vietnam vet, subject to recurring nightmares, and now the camp’s leader while Jonathan owns a thriving business, spending his time golfing and womanising. Sixteen-year-old Trevor is in love with Rachel, determinedly shrugging off his father’s cynicism, looking to Nelson as a model of what a man should be. Twenty-five years later, Rachel is taking her sixteen-year-old son to camp, looking forward to seeing Nelson again and happy to be the only female chaperone in attendance. This summer will see a dramatic and disturbing turn of events.
Butler’s novel wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, exploring the troubling state of American manhood largely through the characters of Nelson and Jonathan. These two stand for models of good and bad behaviour but Butler is careful to avoid turning them into cartoon black and white characters: Nelson’s naivete takes a bashing, leaving him wary and circumspect while Jonathan’s self-absorption is shaken by the dramatic events towards the end of the novel, leading him towards a degree of redemption. Relationships between often absent fathers and their sons are perceptively portrayed, posing the question ‘Where are the role models for boys?’ The gorgeous writing of Shotgun Lovesongs is present and correct with beautiful descriptions of the Wisconsin night sky particularly striking although it’s the startling image of a stripper who ‘peels her panties off the way you might peel the price tag off a book you intended for a present’ that will stay with me. This is a deeply heartfelt novel, infused with sadness rather than anger, which asks hard questions and gives no easy answers. The plot may feel a little creaky occasionally but sensitive characterisation and the clarity of Butler’s writing more than make up for that.