For some, living in a small, cold Midwestern town might lend itself to alcoholism, depression or Internet binges searching for cheap flights to anywhere else. For others, this isolation might be the gateway to creative inspiration. Nickolas Butler falls into the luckier latter. Growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and studying at the University of Wisconsin, Butler went on to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he commuted back to St. Paul every week to be with his wife and children. Jettisoning across the Midwest, Butler became an expert observer of life among silos and snow piles. His debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, inhabits the slow-thaw of the heartland by way of Little Wing, Wisconsin, a fictional town that seems to be an aggregate of Butler’s various residences.
Shotgun Lovesongs follows the adult lives of four boyhood friends who still have some growing up to do. It’s told through alternating first-person accounts from each of the four men—Henry, Leland, Kip and Ronny—as well as Beth, the wife of Henry and former flame of Leland. “I didn’t set out on purpose to write a first-person narrative,” explains Butler, but his form naturally transpired out of the need to balance the different voices within this tight-knit circle of friends. These intimate perspectives offer a direct dose of emotion. An admirer of work where writers let it all hang out like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and James McPherson’s Elbow Room, Butler isn’t afraid to risk sentimentality in his story of ambition, nostalgia, loyalty and love.
Perhaps the emotional intensity of Shotgun Lovesongs was fated from the beginning when the story quickly poured out of Butler during his time at Iowa. Feeling lonely during his first semester of grad school, Butler hunkered down one gray afternoon and wrote the first 35 pages of the novel in one sitting. Throughout the spring he quickly wrote the last 75 pages. “I knew the beginning and the ending, but didn’t know the middle,” he says. “There’s no space aliens, no one is going to die in this book, and I knew those things all along, so then what do you do with your plot? You have to figure something out.” He spent the next year slowing down and filling out the middle, another year editing and then his momentum continued forward in a way that all aspiring writers hope for: a bidding war broke out over his novel and eventually went to St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne with Fox Searchlight picking up the film rights.
What about this story merited such an industry frenzy? On a basic level it’s a wholesome version of the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll myth that will appeal to wide audiences—imagine a younger, hipper version of Garrison Keillor. But on a deeply personal level, Butler’s honest rendering of his characters will draw you into their sagas, making you feel a part of their cliquish romances and shenanigans. Even though Butler did not intend to include semi-autobiographical details in his novel, overlaps from his real life enrich the story.
Henry and Beth are the practical married couple with kids who own a not-so-practical farm. They work hard and wholly love each other (Butler’s in-laws are farmers, so he understands that grueling, commitment-ridden lifestyle.) Meanwhile, Leland is a talented musician who busted out of Little Wing to become a wildly successful rock star after making a DIY-style record. Leland is haunted by his celebrity (Butler went to high school with Justin Vernon, the frontman of the Grammy-winning group Bon Iver—Butler calls Vernon’s success “the definitive story of where I’m from”). Kip also leaves and makes a lot of money as a stockbroker in Chicago, but returns home to pursue something more worthwhile. He invests his money into restoring the town’s old mill, which jeopardizes his marriage, friendships and the happiness he was ultimately seeking (Butler’s best friend had a boat shop in an old feed mill that was being torn down). And finally Ronny, who took off on the rodeo circuit, suffered brain damage and was forced to stay put in Little Wing (Butler’s father had an aneurysm—his slowed consciousness helped inform Ronny’s voice).
The tension of leaving home versus staying bonds and breaks apart these friends over the years. They reunite throughout their adult lives over a series of weddings, and the drama that ensues complicates the love they have for each other as well as their love for their hometown. As it becomes painfully evident that the group has outgrown the purity of youth, that purity of the past is also put into question. With Henry and Beth’s struggling farm and Kip’s bankrupting mill, the future of their hometown is also threatened by the times. Although Butler clearly has a soft spot for small Midwestern towns, he admits “they are deeply flawed places that in a lot of cases are dying.”
Butler’s storytelling is chock-full of compassion for this fragile lifestyle—and the fragile lives of his beloved characters—pushing Shotgun Lovesongs beyond the plight of nostalgia to the poise of elegy. He writes from a place of all body and soul as if he heeds Leland’s gut-spilling instructions for how to make music: “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 singing 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.”
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her book of poetry, What Is Not Missing Is Light, will be published this fall.