Book review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Barneveld, Wisconsin - 101109

Nickolas Butler started writing Shotgun Lovesongs racked with loneliness in an uninspiring rented room in a woman’s house away from home. It’s exactly how one of the protagonists of the book, musician Leland Sutton, writes his first album, also called Shotgun Lovesongs. The book and the album also share a key motif: the awe the artist has for where he calls home. Butler grew up in a Wisconsin town called Eau Claire, which in the book is next to the fictional town of Little Wing where Leland (or Lee) and his friends come from, and where most of the action is set. (Incidentally, Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon is from Eau Claire and went to school with Butler, and so is perhaps a template for the character of Lee.)

The book is set in a place where “time unspools itself slowly, moments divied out like some truly decadent dessert that we savour – weddings, births, graduations, grand openings, funerals.” The raw presence of the rural American Midwest oozes out of each page of the book like ink from a sodden newspaper. Corn fields stretch on and on up to the horizon; seasons colour the land yellow, green and white, while the transition between day and night paints the sky red, purple, blue and black. People are born, live and die in small farming towns which look just as they did 50 or 100 years ago, except more neglected, as if they were toy towns left to gather dust as their owner grew too old to play with them. There are reminders of modernity in the book: mobile phones, hyperactive gossip magazine and Mexican farm labourers. But aside from that the countryside depicted is in a timewarp.

Yet those who leave the town are drawn back like homing pigeons. The steady, ordinary lives of two protagonists who have no intention of leaving Little Wing – Henry the dutiful farmer and Beth, his caring and intelligent wife – are envied by the others who travel. Lee yearns to be back with his adoring friends while jetting around the world on tour. Ronny, simple and macho but childishly affectionate, disliked the constant movement of his rodeo career. The pretentious but ultimately self-aware Kip could never hear the music of the sunset the other friends could hear when they stood in the disused mill. He was the outsider, whose dreams were too big for the town, but who was stung by his incompatibility with it. He gives up a prosperous Chicago lifestyle to return and bankrupt himself renovating the same mill.

Little Wing is a different country from Chicago, and a different world from New York. It is not difficult to work out where Butler prefers. Compared to the calmness and lack of change in rural Wisconsin, New York is a restless, hectic concrete jungle. Lee’s wife Chloe the actress is the personification of this: fake, faddish and flimsy, lacking the concentration span to listen to Lee discuss his friends or eventually to stay in love with him.

This book is about the United States which is overshadowed by big cities and rampant modernity. America, through the eyes of Lee, “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 there should be any room for any music, any extra food, or any extra energy for dancing.”

Yet the book goes beyond a narrow eulogy to a place. It deeply touches on issues of friendship and love. Butler evokes the timelessness of the natural world around Little Wing, with for example geese “flying their ancient and yearly sorties”, and this is matched by the timelessness of proper friendship, despite the rather biblical flaws some of characters succumb to: gluttony, self-preoccupation, addiction, and, most significantly, coveting thy neighbour’s wife. It is an optimistic view of human nature, of the struggles of keeping the ropes of friendship tight when distance, jobs and jealously threaten to pull them apart.

In the end, it is Butler’s exceptional evocation of the landscape, the people and the community which makes this book an enchanting read. Rather like Little Wing itself, the narrative often feels stuck in time. Butler paints us continuous and detailed portraits, through the alternating narratives of Henry, Beth, Lee, Kip and Ronny, a style which works well, even if the omnipresent vividness of the author’s descriptions makes the voices of the characters less distinct from one another. Like in the place evoked in the quote in the second paragraph of this review, time in the book is measured principally in the characters’ marriages – but this fits with the country Butler presents us so well.

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