I was a wee bit wary of reading Nickolas Butler’s Godspeed. His first novel, Cowboy Lovesongs, had set the bar so high that perhaps a slight feeling of disappointment in his second, The Hearts of Men, was inevitable. Rather than Butler’s beloved Wisconsin, this new novel is set in Wyoming where three men, friends and colleagues for twenty years, are offered the job of a lifetime: the construction of a gorgeous, palatial house in the mountains.
Not even a mile away off the highway and already the country was wild, wild, wild. Below the road snaked a river raging white and blue, cataracts tumbling, and above them, off the low mountainsides, wispy waterfalls spilled down like great lengths of silver-white hair.
Cole, Bart and Teddy have long since moved on from their ski bum days in Jackson, forming a small construction company. Teddy is a father of four, happy in his long marriage although his wife wants more financial security. Bart is contemplating leaving construction, his knees shot and his constitution assaulted by drug use. Of the three, Cole is the most ambitious, his eyes set on what the construction of this astonishingly ambitious house will do for the company’s reputation, a distraction from his marital break-up. Their client, Gretchen, has offered them the kind of money that would set them up for life but the house must be completed by Christmas, just four months away. Closed-mouthed, beautiful and clearly successful, Gretchen demands perfection. The three men are determined to meet her deadline, no matter what it takes, mindful of the changing season ahead of them. They set to work, jubilant at first, then increasingly exhausted. Bart resorts to his old tricks, using meth to summon the manic energy he needs to do his share. Four months later, the true cost of this colossal task has taken a toll far outweighing any gratification its rewards could possibly offer while the reason for Gretchen’s intractable deadline has been revealed.
But the closer they moved toward that impossible goal, the more the whole deal felt like a cursed bargain; even this town had begun to feel like a mirage, an illusion of what was possible in America, rather than what it was – a tony playground for the richest of the planet’s rich.
I looked up some of its US coverage before reading Butler’s novel, surprised to see it tagged as a thriller by some. Not a mention of that in the UK blurb, I’m pleased to say. Most of Butler’s story is told from the perspective of Teddy, Cole and Bart, with Gretchen’s backstory interspersed revealing both the need for urgency and the reason why this site means so much to her. The thread of suspense emerges some way into the novel as the three men become increasingly desperate to meet Gretchen’s exacting deadline, their exhaustion resulting in a terrible accident and worse. As with all Butler’s writing there’s a reverence for nature and landscape expressed in lovingly evocative descriptive language. Woven through his novel is a simple message which sings out loud and clear: greed is destructive while love and friendship pave the road to redemption. I enjoyed this one much more than The Hearts of Men. An engrossing piece of storytelling, but if it’s a white-knuckle thriller you’re after best look elsewhere.
Faber & Faber: London 9780571362967 352 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)