On, Wisconsin, grand old badger state. America’s diary land. Home of cattle and corn and butter and brawn.
All of that rich farmland yields more than what you find on your dinner plate. It is fertile grounds for writers as well.
In Nickolas Butler’s debut, small town Wisconsin gives birth to a circle of friends whose lives diverge, each onto a road less traveled by the others.
The characters narrate the chapters, and through them we learn their stories. Henry is the hometown boy who stayed put, marrying Beth, the hometown girl. Theirs is a solid marriage with two young children and a farm that need tending. Henry’s father started the farm, and Henry continues to manage it and its attendant headaches, most of them financial. It’s a difficult life, one full of hard work and stress, but he has Beth and their children. He has everything he wanted.
Beth moved back to be with Henry, after attempting a career in a local city. She has always loved him, although part of her continues to be drawn to Lee, the local boy who made good. Through her occasional breakups with Henry, Beth always felt an attraction to Lee. She admits that when she got married, part of her wondered about him. But she’s a faithful wife. Yes, she yearns to travel more, and yes, she occasionally finds herself curious about life outside of Little Wing, but she’s happy. She loves her husband and her family.
Lee is Henry’s best friend, the guy Henry has always admired but of whom he has never felt jealous. If anything, Lee is jealous of Hank’s life. Hank has stayed put, while Lee has traversed the world as a musician known as Corvus. He has bedded scores of women – sometimes more than one at a time – and dates a famous actress. But he’s always drawn back to Little Wing. It’s his touchstone, where he goes to center himself.
Lee’s other close pal is Ronny, a former rodeo champion. Ronny, too, left Little Wing to travel the rodeo circuit. He was big and powerful, and an alcoholic who suffered a brain bleed that left him a bit mentally diminished. He has Lee, though, and he has Hank and Beth. He has friends who love and support him. He also has the hope that he will meet someone someday and have a family of his own.
Then there is Kip, who was never as close to Hank, Lee, and Ronny as they were with each other. Kip moved to Chicago, earned a pile of money, and came back to Little Wing, buying an old mill and refurbishing it with hope of turning it into Something. He also came back with his fiancee Felicia, a city girl who loves him enough to settle their home in Little Wing. Kip’s chapters are the fewest in the book, and in some ways are not necessary. He might have been better served if he’d been left a mystery.
The book’s title is the name of Lee’s debut album, written as a paean to his first – and perhaps truest – love. The “shotgun” is Lee’s conscience, and when he pulls the trigger to shoot it, he causes terrible damage to friendships and relationships. A gun once fired cannot be un-fired, and Lee learns that lesson.
The love songs are varied. There is the love between man and wife, the love between friends, the illicit love between those who should not love each other, and the love people have for their hometowns. Butler clearly adores Wisconsin, and his details give the novel a life apart from its characters. Whether the old timers who enjoy drinking beer at the VFW hall or the large jar of pickled eggs or the boarding house where Lee lived when he recorded Shotgun Lovesongs, we see Little Wing, and it becomes alive for us.
Apparently this is a take off on the life of Bon Iver, someone whose music I am not terribly familiar with and of whom I know nothing. You won’t need to, either, in order to appreciate this novel.
I enjoyed the way Butler wrote his book. I liked getting into the heads of Henry, Lee, Ronny, and Beth, even if I occasionally disliked a couple of them. And, yes, I’m talking to you, Lee and Beth. I adored Henry, though. He is everything that is good about midwestern folk. Reliable, strong, loyal, and good. He’s a man who can forgive, even if he doesn’t realize that himself. He wants – needs – to see the best in people, and he learns to accept them when they give him their worst. It’s a lesson that comes with no small amount of pain for him, but his goodness and straightforwardness keep propelling him forward.
This is a good one. Don’t pass it by.