[21 April 2014]
There are quiet hymns to the quiet life still published today. You find them scattered here and there amidst the angsty blank urban snarkscape of modern literature, like eager and well-behaved students in a classroom of smartasses and showoffs. These books usually fly below the radar, hidden in plain sight in the ranks of less-reviewed novels that might rack up honorable sales figures, but are barely noticed from a critical perspective. But sometimes this less attitudinal literature makes its presence known. You’re barely a page into Nickolas Butler’s debut novel, the breathlessly anticipated Shotgun Lovesongs, and already the choirs have sucked in their breath for a great big holler.
Butler’s setting is the town of Little Wing, Wisconsin. It’s near Eau Claire and doesn’t have much nightlife apart from the VFW hall. There’s dairy farmers, a quietly dying downtown, the diner that nobody likes but eats at anyway, and enough just-folks integrity to float an entire trilogy, let alone one medium-length novel. Butler has his quartet of characters, each representing carefully chosen tropes. Most importantly, he has his rapturous and singing language, which can’t help but present Little Wing and its environs through rose-tinted lenses. Here is Butler’s central regular-guy character, Henry, talking about his friend Lee, and how the town’s resident rock star saw the place that he came from:
He wrote songs about our place on earth: the everywhere fields of corn, the third-growth forests, the humpbacked hills and groove-out draws. The knife-sharp cold, the too-short days, the snow, the snow, the snow. His songs were our anthems—they were our bullhorns and microphones and jukebox anthems. We adored him; our wives adored him. We knew all the words to the songs and sometimes we were in the songs.
Butler seems to pour a lot of himself into Shotgun Lovesongs. There’s little here that reads as tossed off or casual. He has a sideline in poetry, which doesn’t surprise after coming across passages like that above. The clean crack of the imagery, the confident repetitions (“the snow, the snow, the snow”) dance right off the page and into your mind’s eye. Rushing torrents of love, peaceful contentment, the agitation of lives unfulfilled; this is a novel for the senses.
In fact, those hymnlets to the land and a particular way of life sing out louder than the sketchy plotting. Butler alternates his chapters between the characters as they dance around the frustrations of adulthood and the fraying cord tying them to old friends and the land of their youth. The centerpiece is Henry, presented as almost a human equivalent to a doughty draft horse; stoic and kind, uncomplaining but loving. A dairy farmer who married his sweetheart, Beth, Henry is something of an other half to Lee, the local star, whose comings and goings are just about the only good gossip in Little Wing.
Reportedly inspired by Bon Iver’s recording of For Emma, Forever Ago in a Wisconsin cabin, Butler’s creation of Lee reads initially as the most vividly imagined thing here. In a novel whose points of view alternate from one character to the next, Lee’s chapters sing out the loudest. He’s painfully split between being the decent smalltown guy who wants nothing more than a plot of land to call his own and a good woman and the internationally touring rock star who marries a young Julia Roberts-like movie star on a whim. But even Lee can’t resist the middlebrow gravity of the novel, which pulls every character and event towards the same low hum.
Lee’s friendships with his three childhood friends are each handled more schematically than organically. Besides Henry, there is the troubled one, alcoholic rodeo circuit rider Ronny, and the embittered and permanently jealous big-city showoff Kip. Although they are used to dispense the small scraps of melodrama that keep the novel barely turning over with its low-end rhythms, both are just as much types as the impeccably decent Henry; not to mention Beth, the only female voice here. There are few surprises to be had with any of these guys. When they do come, like the absurd and would-be comic last-act wrinkle that fights too hard by half to introduce some drama to the proceedings, they are more groan-worthy than anything else.
Given the inevitable nostalgic underpinnings of a four-buddies structure like this, Butler doesn’t build much of anything out of it. A big fuss is made early on about vain, insecure Kip moving back to Little Wing from Chicago, where he made a bundle in finance, and having a lavish wedding where the invited paparazzi swarm Lee and cause a rift. A lot is also made of Lee taking care of Ronny’s medical problems and essentially caring for him as an older brother. But none of it throws much sand under the wheels, as Butler uses most of these developments as reasons to sing the praises again of Lee, Henry, and their idyllic town of Little Wing.
While some of Butler’s characters have more to say than others—when she’s given more time to expand in the latter sections, Beth brings a more honest perspective to the male characters’ more unexamined lives—they mostly live in a similar glow of small-town decency that can’t help but feel forced. Again and again, we hear about the glories of Little Wing, the harsh beauty of its winters, and the humble goodness of its volk. It’s a town so rendered in amber that there are only the slightest nods to the town’s economic woes, and certainly nothing about crime or the strain between locally-owned and chain businesses (in other words, there’s no room for Walmarts or McDonalds in this portrait).
Butler is, of course, under no obligations to create a three-dimensional portrait here, no more than say Spike Lee was obligated to include the drug trade in a similarly idealized view on that one block of Bed-Stuy in Do the Right Thing. But when the song varies so little from one chorus to the next, as gleaming and occasionally heart-tugging as it might be, any variety or texture to the background would come as a relief.