Across three generations and as many wars, this earnest novel explores the ways boys become men and how even flawed men may stand as models for the young.
Butler starts with a bleak picture of bullying at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Chippewa in Wisconsin in the summer of 1962. Bespectacled Nelson, at 13 the youngest boy in his troop, progresses from blunt isolation (“Nelson has no friends”) and ridicule to an awful ordeal in the camp latrine. His one defender, the older Jonathan, betrays him, while the upright scoutmaster, World War I veteran Wilbur Whiteside, leads him into snitching on misbehaving counselors. Wilbur, who can recall how many boys in his neighborhood were beaten by their coal-miner fathers every night, also saves Nelson and his mother from her abusive husband, sending the youngster to a military academy that shepherds him to West Point and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Jonathan grows up to have a son, Trevor, whom he introduces to his mistress and lap dances on the same night. Trevor will marry his high school sweetheart—despite his father betting against it—and sire a son, Thomas, before going to war in Afghanistan. His wife will eventually take Thomas to Camp Chippewa, where Nelson is now scoutmaster and her longtime friend; she stays on as a chaperone and will deal with another kind of bully, older and more dangerous. Butler’s debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs (2014), explored the forces that bind and erode friendship among a group of young men growing up in a Wisconsin town. This book mines a darker seam, delving into the roots of the male character and how it may be shaped by a code of behavior or an exemplar and warped or strengthened by trauma. He presents few strong women characters, but the exceptions suggest he has much to offer in that area.
Butler’s mostly unembellished prose delivers a well-paced, affecting read.