There are books that perform the literary equivalent of grabbing you by the throat and shouting at you to listen, and there are books, such as Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, that creep up on you slowly, winding their way into your mind until their story is that you hear.
On the surface this tale of four men growing up and apart in rural Wisconsin is a straightforward look at the nature of friendship: the lies we tell and the secrets we keep, the ruts we fall into and the small compromises of age. Its power comes from its honesty and the way in which the author sees as much value in life’s smaller moments as in its big.
Our hero is Henry. Slow-talking, quiet, deep thinking Henry, who runs his daddy’s farm, as he always knew he would, for whom life is a hardscrabble, financially precarious affair, leavened by the love of his wife Beth and their kids.
By contrast Henry’s best friend Lee always knew he’d leave Wisconsin, although even he may not have realised just how far he’d go. ‘We invited him to of our weddings; he was famous’ states the opening paragraph, concluding ‘He would call us sometimes, the connection scratchy and echoing, a chorus of young women giggling in the background, his voice never sounding as happy as we expected it to.’
Lee is a star of the Americana folk scene (and much has been in the US of the fact Butler comes from the same small town as the award-winning Bon Iver) yet his fame and wealth only serves to make him ache for another, different life.
Butler is acute on fame, both its acquisition and its loss – alongside Lee and Henry we also meet Ronnie, tarnished golden boy and former rodeo star, and the brash, ambitious Kip who made a fortune in finance but craves recognition from his hometown – but it’s not his primary concern. Instead this is a novel about ordinary lives.
It won’t appeal to everyone. Butler occasionally lapses into soap opera territory – the central plotline requires Henry to behave not simply out of character but completely unreasonably – and it’s hard to escape the niggling feeling that the US reviews might have been a little less laudatory had the author been female.
Yet these are minor concerns when weighed against the book’s whole. For Shotgun Lovesongs works precisely because of its flaws rather than in spite of them. It’s an unashamedly sentimental hymn to those who lives we too easily overlook, a beautifully written, big-hearted celebration of the enduring power of different kinds of love.