Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fiction | Ebbs and Flows of Small-Town Lives

To Nickolas Butler, I must apologize.

I read his bestselling novel debut Shotgun Lovesongs too, too long ago (erm, Spring Break?). I loved it; I recommended it to others; and I never wrote about it beyond a two-sentence comment on Goodreads. So much time has now passed that I feel I will inevitably do this book a great injustice with my comments/review, now at this late date. It has, after all, somewhat faded from memory over the past five months.

I do apologize, but this I do promise: in the following review, I have researched and refreshed my memory as much as possible to give a fair representation of my feelings immediately after my initial reading of this book.

And so...

The story centers around one small Wisconsin town, Little Wing, and a group of four men that have shared their lives together since adolescence. Ronny was the local boy destined for big things; he found fame and success on the rodeo circuit for a while, but alcohol ultimately led to his downfall, and an accident under the influence left him a little more simple in the brain than he once was. Kip left for big-city Chicago, but returned to Little Wing after nearly a decade's success in business. He's returning home with big ideas and big dollars to revitalize the little town that gave him life, but the lifestyle he learned in Chicago has put a wall between him and his more modestly earning friends that never left. Lee is the famed son of Little Wing, a world-famous musician that has never lost his country roots. Little Wing remains his hideout from the chaos of fame—the one place he never has to use a stage name.

At the center of this story is Henry—the every man who enjoys a simple life with his family, good beer, and good friends. Henry is the solid rock, mirroring Little Wing itself—steady and consistent, almost traditional, as others around him move out, move on, and evolve. He and Lee have the closest bond, and it's probably thanks to the stability of Henry and Little Wing that Lee is able to survive in a world so unlike the one he is used to; Henry is grounding.

And then there is Beth, Henry's wife, the woman who has been there for it all from carefree underage days of sneaking booze to the rigor and routine of adulthood. Beth is the powerful force in this story, able to hold together the pieces of tumultuous lives and relationships to keep them all from crumbling.

These characters are so vastly different from one another, but their shared history is a bond that doesn't seem to break; it keeps their lives, though usually contrasting from one another, deeply interwoven. Butler manages to create very real conflict without any sense of melodrama, and because of this, there's a huge sense of relatability and universality. To maintain this plain-spoken tone throughout, despite a beautiful sometimes-lyrical style of writing, is a testament to the author's skilled and purposeful use of language.

I find Shotgun Lovesongs to be a very American novel at its core. The world of these characters and their relationships are a quintessential local experience, reflecting strong traditional values of community and family. I loved learning what made these characters tick, how their lives would unfold as information was revealed. Ultimately, what I loved about this book was how beautifully it described the universal experience of everyday living.

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