A debut novel that delves so deeply into the small-town heartland that readers will accept its flaws as part of its charm.
“Write what you know” is the first dictum directed toward aspiring fiction writers, and there’s no doubt that Butler knows his fictional Little Wing inside out. It’s a Wisconsin farm town not far from Eau Claire, where the author was raised, and it holds a central place in the hearts of those who came of age there—particularly the four men who were boyhood friends and who narrate the novel’s alternating chapters, along with the fifth, a woman who was the childhood sweetheart of at least two of them. Beth and Henry are the married couple who remained to farm in Little Wing and, despite their financial struggles, are in some ways the envy of the others. Lee, who is Henry’s best friend, has become “America’s most famous flannel-wearing indie troubadour,” an artist so successful he hobnobs with those that others know mainly from celebrity magazines. But he only feels at home in Little Wing, where he found his voice and wrote the songs on the album that catapulted him to fame (and gives the novel its title). Kip made millions for others and did well for himself as a broker in Chicago but has returned to Little Wing to restore its mill as a commercial center and to show off the beautiful woman who will be his wife. Ronny left town as a rodeo rider and an alcoholic and has returned to recover after a brain-damaging mishap. There are four weddings in the novel, a few separations, a bunch of drunken adventures and confessions, and a fairly preposterous ending. But there is also a profound empathy for the characters and the small-town dynamic that the reader will likely share, an appreciation for what “America was, or could be.”
Despite some soap-opera machinations and occasional literary overreach, the novel will strike a responsive chord in any reader who has found his life reflected in a Bob Seger song.