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Monday, May 5, 2014

'Shotgun Lovesongs' by Nickolas Butler

From the BLURB:

Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronnie grew up together in rural Wisconsin, but their lives have since taken different paths. Henry stayed home and married his first love, whilst the others left in search of something more. Ronnie became a rodeo star, Kip made his fortune in the city, and musician Lee found fame - but heartbreak, too. Now all four are reunited for a wedding, but amid happiness and celebration, old rivalries resurface and a wife's secret threatens to tear both a marriage and a friendship apart . . . This is a novel about the things that matter - love and loyalty, the power of music and the beauty of nature - told in a uniquely beautiful, warm-hearted and profound way.

Sometimes the reading-Gods answer our prayers, and for me they delivered Nickolas Butler’s debut novel, ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’. 

For the last couple of years I have been a little bit obsessed with TV show ‘Nashville’ which, in it’s most basic tagline on IMDB is described as being about – “A fading country music star comes into conflict with a rising teen star.” Which does the show no justice at all. ‘Nashville’ follows the lives of famous country music stars and the complicated histories that helped write their most famous songs. We also see up-and-coming, stars-in-their-eyes singers as they start learning the same lessons as their idols when it comes to heartache being a solid muse. Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes (her hair is my spirit animal) Hayden Panettiere as Juliette Barnes and the delicious Charles Esten as Deacon Claybourne. I freakin’ love this show! But because I am a reader first and foremost, I often think after nearly every episode how much I wish there was a book like ‘Nashville’ … and then ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’ came along.

Set in Little Wing, Wisconsin – ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’ is told from the alternating perspectives of life-long friends Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronnie and Henry’s wife, Beth. Henry is a farmer, real salt-of-the-earth type who married his highschool sweetheart (who he’d known since kindergarten) and has three beautiful children with her. Kip left Little Wing and made it big in Chicago, working numbers – but he’s recently returned and poured all his money into a run-down mill and silos that he envisions turning into a landmark that will revitalize his old, beloved town. Ronnie was big on the rodeo circuit, a real heartthrob with a little fanbase – until drinking fried his brain, and now while he gets along just fine, people feel the need to keep an eye on him. Lee is ‘Corvus’ – a big country music star whose first album “Shotgun Lovesongs” sky-rocketed him to fame. But Little Wing has always been his home-base, the place he comes to unwind after the world tours and press gigs, studio sessions and failed relationships splashed all over the tabloids.

Everyone is returning to Little Wing to see Kip get married – but what happens at the wedding sets off a domino-effect amongst these friends who suddenly find themselves tied up in secrets and confessions, frayed relationships and drifting apart.

I so loved that the pivot-point of this novel is the friendship of these four men. It’s something very rarely represented outside of YA and children’s novels – men whose histories are entwined with one another, who feel a deep bond of brotherhood and need each other’s presence in their lives to feel right and orientated in this world. 

When I reviewed the book 
‘Just Between Us: Australian writers tell the truth about female friendship’ last year, I expressed a wish for a male-equivalent short story collection … and I think I got it in ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’. Lee, in particular, relies on his Little Wing friends to be his calm after the storm of fame. Coming home for him is less about the house he owns and bed he sleeps in, but rather getting invited round to Henry and Beth’s place for dinner. Lee speaks so eloquently (if, internally) about what Henry means to him, even a phone call from his best friend;

Henry’s voice – the voice of an old friend – like finding a wall to orient you in some strange, dark hotel room. The world is still out there. Henry is still out there. Real as a fencepost.

And these men have a complicated friendship. In the beginning Kip is seemingly cruel for the way he tries to distance himself from Ronnie, clearly embarrassed and unsure of how to treat his friend who isn’t quite the guy he used to be. Henry and Lee, meanwhile, are more open and physically affectionate with Ronnie (whether that’s something that changed since Ronnie’s hospitalization, I was never sure) happy to hug him, place a hand on the back of his neck for reassurance. And as a result, Henry and Lee’s relationship with Kip is frosty – but this is something he muses on while looking over Little Wing from his silo, something all four did as boys growing up; 

The sun is rising. Soon, the day’s first customers will begin to trickle in. Lee used to hear music in sunsets – jazz. I don’t know about that. And the sunrise? I don’t think sunrise has a musical sound. To me, it’s like a beautiful woman yawning as she first wakes up, or maybe, I don’t know, a baby. A baby opening her eyes. Maybe both. Either way, I feel less and less that I deserve another day, another dawn like this one. 

A lot of what we learn about these men is internal and kept from other characters’ knowledge– only readers know that Henry has started painting again (after being encouraged by his high school art teacher) only to burn the canvases and hide the evidence. Kip, seemingly so cruel, has a private story about once sharing a close resemblance to an elderly couple’s deceased son, who died while in Afghanistan … characters open up to readers in their narrated sections, beautiful vignettes that are pulled out like campfire stories while the bigger arc of the plot plays out around them. 

But the focus in this book is on Lee. Many of the characters muse throughout how proud they are of his success, and how much of his album ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’ is based on their childhood and shared history with the great Lee Corvus. Even Lee acknowledges the role Little Wing has played as his muse and key to his success;

Sing like you’ve got no audience, sing like you don’t know what a critic is, sing about your hometown, sing about your prom, sing about deer, sing about the seasons, sing about your mother, sing about chainsaws, sing about the thaw, sing about the rivers, sing about forests, sing about the prairies. But whatever you do, start signing early in the morning, if only just to keep warm. And if you happen to live in a warm beautiful place …  
Move to Wisconsin. Buy a woodstove, and spend a week splitting wood. It worked for me.

And as life-changing events unfold (not always dramatically, but in little increments as they do – drunken secrets admitted, the silence that grows in a marriage) we, as readers, start to see that there is inspiration coming Lee’s way – maybe for a new album? We may be privy, as his friends once were, to the groundwork that’s being laid for Lee’s next creative endeavour. 

I loved this book. Nickolas Butler writes with such a steady, assured voice that is at once tough and lyrical. He doesn’t sound like a debut author, but a rather accomplished storyteller.

… and sometimes that is what forgiveness is anyway – a deep sigh. 

I loved that this book, first and foremost, is about the love between four grown male friends and the fractures and fights that would threaten to tear them apart if they weren’t so damn dedicated to one another. I want to read anything and everything else that Nickolas Butler puts his name to. 


1 comment:

  1. I also really enjoyed this book for its focus on adult male friendships. Great review!


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