Tag Archives: Wisconsin

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler: What maketh the man?

Cover imageRegular 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.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler: An American smalltown gem

Cover imageI read a lot of first novels – there’s always that hope of spotting a shiny new talent. Often, of course, those hopes are dashed but this is not a blog for dashed hopes. You’ll only read about the books I’m happy to recommend here which is why you can trust what may well turn into a pean of praise for Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs. Lots of excited chatter about it on Twitter which sometimes sets my cynic’s antenna quivering but this seemed to be between friends, and it turns out that they have excellent taste. It’s an American smalltown novel – another weakness of mine – about friendship and love which often overlap.

Lee, Henry, Ronny and Kip have grown up together in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Now on the cusp of middle age, they’ve known each other since they were eight-years-old. They have a bond almost closer than family but, as ever with friendships, some are more tightly bound than others – Henry and Lee are the closest, despite the fame that Lee’s successful music career has brought; Ronny idolises Lee who has looked out for him since his rodeo career was scuppered by a head injury; Kip, a savvy Chicago stockbroker who has recently moved back with big plans to renovate the old grain mill, is on the sidelines and resents it. The novel opens with Kip and Felicia’s wedding, a little too flash and citified for Wisconsin. It’s narrated by the four friends and Beth, Henry’s wife and the love of his life. Their stories unfold in a series of flashbacks played out against the lives they lead now. Firmly rooted in Little Wing, Henry runs the family farm while Beth looks after their two children. Their lives couldn’t be more different from Lee who spends his time touring, lusted after by beautiful women and yearning for home. Ronny struggles with his health, kicking a little against the protectiveness that feels like being wrapped in cotton wool. Kip has come back to Little Wing more to show them all what he’s achieved than for love of the place.

Choosing five different narrative voices is quite a challenge to set yourself – too easy for them to sound samey or clash gratingly – but Butler carries it off beautifully, drawing his readers into each of his characters’ lives. About a third of the way through heartbreak appears on the horizon, and although it may not come in quite the way you expect Butler’s writing is powerful enough to make his readers feel it keenly. I’ve never been to the Midwest – hardly a tourist destination – but he made me want to see it. His quietly lyrical descriptions can only be described as romantic: he writes like a man in love with Wisconsin. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the film rights had been sold but sorry that Fox Searchlight had bought them. What this books needs is an indie film company, one which has the courage to keep the grittiness rather than turn it into the lush melodrama which Butler’s deft writing neatly avoids. It’s a gorgeous, tender novel, beautifully written. I’m already looking forward to his next.