Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date: March 11, 2014
It’s rare when you read a book set in the rural heartland, and the characters feel grounded and real – not quirky or bizarre or bruised or brutal – just an ordinary sort of real. It almost seems that there’s a sense that “real” cannot be interesting, that “real” cannot be beautiful. But in Shotgun Lovesongs, it’s the yearning for that which would be considered unremarkable that shines.
The book follows four friends, now in their early 30s, who grew up in tiny Little Wing, Wisconsin. Salt-of-the-earth Henry is a dairy farmer, carrying on the legacy of his father and his father before him; he has been married to Beth for nine years, and they have two children. Ronny was a free spirit, a dashing alcoholic who found a bit of fame on the rodeo circuit until a drunken curbside fall outside the VFW in Eau Claire resulted in a bashed in skull which left him a bit simpler, a bit more vulnerable. Kip had left Little Wing to become a hot shot commodities trader in Chicago, but he recently returned to buy and renovate the old grain mill that figured so strongly in their childhood memories but had spent years abandoned and slowly eroding into decay. And Lee – well, Lee went further than any of them.
Lee had become a superstar singer/songwriter, known for never selling out, for living in an old, abandoned schoolhouse out in the country with a recording studio in the gymnasium, making the music he wanted to make. His mystique was already set by his humble beginnings with no music industry behind him; merely his own makeshift studio and the forced focus of a long, cold winter. He grew famous but he never lost himself; no matter where his career took him, he always came back to Little Wing.
Lee’s success had not surprised us. He had simply never given up on his music. While the rest of us were in college or the army or stuck on our family farms, he had holed up in a derelict chicken coop and played his battered guitar in the all-around silence of deepest winter. He sang in an eerie falsetto, and sometimes around the campfire it would make you weep in the unreliable shadows thrown by those orange-yellow flames and the white-black smoke. He was the best among us.
(And if that somehow feels fabricated to you, check out the background of the very real indie folk musician Justin Vernon, lead singer/main persona of the band, Bon Iver, and who just happened to be a high school classmate of Nickolas Butler.)
Then there is Beth, Henry’s wife. She is beautiful, sensible, devoted to a man and their simple way of life, a perfect partner to the solid farmer. She befriends Kip’s fish-out-of-water society wife, welcomes Ronny into the circle of her home and family with open arms, even with his checkered past, and offers him normalcy. With Lee, her husband’s best friend, she is the epitome of domestic bliss and solidity, despite the financial worries and their own buried past.
The men are reunited when Lee returns from touring in Australia to sing at Kip’s wedding; a favor that is less an offering than it is an assumption, which mirrors the two’s somewhat prickly relationship. Lee himself brings a beautiful movie actress as his date, one for whom he actually has feelings, and then is upset when the paparazzi are alerted and invade his sacred stomping grounds. Just as the four friends are finally back together, it becomes clear that things will never be the same between them, that circumstances have wrought so many changes, both welcome and subtle, which have widened the gaps that appear over time between even the staunchest of allies. It becomes clear that indeed time doesn’t heal all wounds – sometimes it only digs them deeper.
Relationships are at the center of Shotgun Lovesongs, relationships shared between friends, between husbands and wives, between lovers; the tangential relationships of those who find themselves drawn into the pasts of others, of those pasts threatening the present, and always, always, the relationship of the self to home, to a sense of place that roots us and holds us even when we think we have moved on.
The beauty of small town Wisconsin life is very evident in Nickolas Butler’s narrative; it’s obvious that the author has lived it and feels it still. Having grown up in the Midwest myself (and my husband is from a small town in the very part of Wisconsin in which the book is set), I can speak to the absolute genuineness of his observations and the flow of life that he evokes.
Leave your door open in the big city and you’ll wake up with no furniture and no clothing. Leave your door open here and a coyote come in looking for a handout.
Admittedly, sometimes it does get to be a bit too much. Although each “chapter” in the book is written from the viewpoint of one of the five main characters – Henry, Kip, Ronny, Lee or Beth – the narrative still sounds the same. Not the actions or motivations, not the observations or the filters through which those observations are made, but the voice behind them – each one of them seems to have the same lilt, the same recitation of appreciation expressed in very similar musings on the past and its effects.
And the cast of characters is very small. The five mains, the extant wives/girlfriends (Felicia, Chloe, Lucy), and a few others whose names resurface again and again as though there was only so much budget left over for extras: Eddy, the Giroux twins. The names become a litany. While demographics of a small town are necessarily limited, one would think in five shared lifetimes there would be a few more players that would be woven into the story.
But those are mere quibbles. The language, the feel, the atmosphere is lush in a very Midwestern way. The struggles the characters go through are genuine, believable, and their reactions are relatable to even the most settled of us. And even at its darkest, even when the options seem to sway between despair or abject acceptance, there is always a thread of hope that runs through this story. That no matter how bad the harvest, no matter how harsh the winter, no matter how dry the summer, the seasons will turn again. There is always a chance that the future will afford some graciousness, that the bitterness of today will fade with the evening sun. That love, once lost, still resonates. And that forgiveness still exists.
At least in small towns in Wisconsin.