America, I think, is about poor people playing music and poor people sharing food and poor people dancing, even when everything else in their lives is so desperate, and so dismal that it doesn’t seem that there should be any room for any music, any extra food, or any extra energy for dancing. And people can say that I’m wrong, that we’re a puritanical people, an evangelical people, a selfish people, but I don’t believe that. I don’t want to believe that.
–from Shotgun Lovesongs
There’s a reason bookstores still exist. On a languid summer day, I went to the wonderful new addition to our neighborhood Roscoe Books and asked the clerk for recommendation.
“I want a book with a first-person narrator that’s easy to read, in the vein of Nick Hornby, but more like a classic. Something that tugs at my heart like East of Eden.”
Neither Amazon.com nor google could have offered such an astute suggestion–Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler. I read the book mostly during my week long family vacation to South Carolina, the first my family took in years. Much as the vacation transported me back to my teenage years, Shotgun Lovesongs gave me the same delight that books did before I majored in English, before I became a teacher. I didn’t underline, I didn’t annotate, I simply lost myself in the narrative.
Over my recent Winter Break, which quite possibly was the last vacation from school where I’d have absolute time to myself (my son’s due date being January 28th), I read his follow up, a collection of short stories he mostly wrote during his time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Beneath the Bonfire. I normally didn’t like the short-story-collection-follow-up-to-the-debut-novel formula many authors utilized. But Butler’s collection allowed me to savor ten narrative arcs, ten vivid settings, and mostly, ten tugs at my heartstrings.
I needed some reflection on the meaning of it all. Ever since Kristy and I looked up at each other, the realization that the pregnancy test came up positive, my emotions have been a bit erratic. It sounds hackneyed, but the moments of pure delight that I’ll be a father followed terror at the prospect of all that could go wrong. All the mistakes that I made throughout my life without major consequence were now tragedies-in-wait. As much as I sloughed off a good majority of my selfishness in my 20s, I’d now have to be selfless, a task I wasn’t sure I was ready for.
Butler’s characters–with their web of flaws and virtues intertwined–are survivors that pushed the envelope. They’re homebodies, bumpkins longing to maintain their relationship with themselves. In the good, bad, and ugly inside all his characters, I projected my own desires, my own struggles, and more than a few times, I obtained a sense of clarity.
Over the summer my beta readers advised on what I hope will be my debut novel, Foxxy and the Girlscouts, that I needed to treat the setting like a character. Setting has always been my weakness as a writer. As a reader, I often skim setting, often finding it indulgent and self-congratulatory.
Butler uses his home, Wisconsin, deftly, drawing out the purity of the nature along with the subtle decay. Shotgun Lovesong‘s Little Wing has as much of a relationship with the four major male characters as Beth, the woman with subtle ties between them. And in Beneath the Bonfire, the setting mirrors the empathy that many of the characters elicit, whether it was picked clean in “Morels,” sawed open in the title story, or offering a rebirth as in the closer, “Apples”.
Maybe I didn’t really fall in love with Nickolas Butler until I finished that story, concluding with an inside joke from husband to wife, their relationship as strong near the end as it was at the beginning. Maybe I needed an outsider to show me that we’d be all right, that our love would collect and sweeten over time, through the challenges of raising a child.
Nickolas Butler reminded me that the greatest stories aren’t as much about structure, craft, wit, as they are a means to connect us to the parts of ourselves we’d either not yet met or lost over time. I can’t wait for his next novel, The Faithlessness of Men, and I’m thrilled that I’ll have the opportunity to follow the career of an author that’s started out so promising.