n his debut novel “Shotgun Lovesongs” (Picador: London, 2013), Nickolas Butler creates a peon to small town America, uncovering a few hidden cracks. Five vibrant colloquial voices, four men and a woman, recount their youthful bonding, and their decade-later reunion. The occasion is a wedding, back home in rural Little Wing, Wisconsin.
After years away from Little Wing, and from each other, rodeo rider Ronnie, Chicago market trader Kip and rock star Lee are back in town again. These three have reached the now classic life crisis stage of men in their early thirties. Their account is completed by the voices of farm couple Henry and Beth. Married young, they never saw reason to leave.
For Little Wing represents an ideal, and idealized hometown America, a community that offers the enduring, ever-restorative forces of friendship, loyalty, and common roots.
Frankly Butler’s glowing view of bang-up folk dances, festooned VFW Hall get-togethers, and pals going for long, communing walks is heartwarming for the first couple of chapters. It’s also Eden minus the apple tree, or the snake.
But just wait. The quintet’s reunion for Kip’s marriage will soon start sparks flying. During wedding run-up, the ceremony, and the year that follows, all five will be emotionally recharged, and torn, by their renewed closeness. Their encounter forces each to reconsider where they’ve been and where they’re going.
In “Shotgun” Butler sketches a starkly lovely rural Wisconsin setting. Where Henry farms the land his forefathers tilled. As a girl, his wife Beth exchanged her career dreams for this loving husband. Though once, before their engagement, Beth shared a night of passionate sex with friend Lee. Lee’s return stirs questions about what might have been, and some heavy guilt.
Enter the snake, of a smallish, garden variety. Lee confesses that single night to Henry. Tensions grow; Henry cuts Lee from his life and angrily accuses Beth of having lied about the values underlying their marriage. Will love and marriage win over anger and guilt?
Butler’s loaded his story with plenty of ” home again” problems and questions.
Having earned a Chicago market fortune, Kip is burned out. He’s decided to hold his wedding in the vast, abandoned mill he spent his market fortune reconstructing. Smack in Little Wing’s economically dying center. He fantasizes a reshaped entrepreneurial career. Surely the mill will become a hub of upscale restaurants and shops. Or maybe not, since the town is tiny is joyous but ultimately jobless.
Lee’s tale is based, at least loosely, on the career ups and downs of Bon Iver rocker Justin Vernon (Bon Iver is an American indie band). Butler and Vernon attended high school together in Eau River (which appears in Shotgun as fictional Little Wing’s neighbor town). For Bon Iver cultists, Butler’s portrayal of Lee’s time away from Little Wing may hold tantalizing clues to idol Vernon’s own creative life.
Luckily for other readers, Butler also carves a more complex portrait of Lee, and the identity he regains once back home. The silences in Little Wing’s vast farm and woodlands are his private background music.
He’s tried marriage as means to lay down roots. But he wed gorgeous Hollywood actress Chloe, who finds Little Wing amusing. Unfortunately, she’s amused by many things that are much more useful to her career. Exit Chloe. But Lee stays on to record new songs in the same isolated cabin where he produced his famed album “Shotgun Lovesongs” (hence the book title).
That leaves Ron with decisions of his own. Bolted from more horses than he can count, he’s off the rodeo circuit. A little damaged. But not so slow he can’t recognize the dangers in coming home again: “Every time I try to run away, I feel the gravity this place has. It pulls me back.” Trouble is, life is “plain boring here.” After all, you can always go home again — for a visit.
Summing up: if the human dilemmas in “Shotgun” seem excessive, Butler juggles them well. In part because his highly personalized narrators speak intimately, providing a sharp-edged sense of time and place.
And if this reviewer gets edgy with local speech peppered with “ain’t” and “doesn’t you,” Beth, Henry, Kip, Ronnie and Lee are very much at ease. It’s the way everybody talks in Little Wing. It’s a close community that guarantees continuity and purpose. Backed and re-fueled by these roots, the narrating quintet (predictably) resolves their life issues, and moves on, to credible resolutions. This is Butler’s convinced and ultimately convincing vision of heartland America.