A Review: ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’

With the changing morays governing courtship and marriage, the phrase shotgun wedding now has become all but obsolete. However, for those of us of a certain age, the term is still evocative as we recall those marriages we attended in the past, the groom feeling a gun at his head, if only figuratively, while he makes an honest woman of the girl he has loved.

Nickolas Butler’s novel Shotgun Lovesongs has no indignant father coming after his daughter’s boyfriend with a shotgun, but ironically does offer a bullet that repairs a damaged friendship between two men.

Raised in Eau Claire and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Butler presently lives in rural Wisconsin with his wife and two children. He brings to his fiction a familiar terrain as well as a cast of character types that ring true to Midwestern readers.

In his tale fifteen years have passed since the high school graduation of four best friends, young men who had been raised in the fictional small town of Little Wing not far from Eau Claire. Henry has married a high school classmate Beth and stayed at home on a farm raising their two children. Lee has doggedly pursued a New York career in music (singing in a style reminiscent of Grammy Award-winning Justin Vernon, a high school classmate of Bultler’s) and now enjoys international fame. Kip moved to Chicago where he found that he could make his fortune as a commodities trader. Ronny had ridden the rodeo circuit, cowboy success at the expense of abuse to his body through both bull riding and alcohol.

As the novel begins, the four friends are brought together for the marriage of Kip, who has returned to Little Wing to restore and re-purpose an old feed mill with six-story grain silos. Although the group has roots that tie them together, their lives have branched out in every other aspect. Social events, such as weddings, can serve as catalysts for bringing to the surface memories seemingly forgotten, and while old connections can be re-forged, wounds thought healed can be reopened.

Butler’s narrative is a fast read because his characters are as complex as his plotline is engaging. The four young men along with Beth (whose life has become intertwined with theirs) offer first-person narrations as the chapters unfold, oftentimes retelling an event that has already transpired, but from different perspectives and with the inclusion of additional details. As a result, the reader shifts loyalties from one character to another, as varying points of view are presented offering glimpses into the emotional life of each character.

Author Nickolas Butler.

The setting is enjoyable, especially the rural Wisconsin countryside and life in a small town. A VFW bar is a recurring location in the novel. Recently this writer attended a wedding anniversary in a village VFW, and smiled with the realization that Butler had nailed the venue.

One critic praised Butler for his tasteful use of sentimentalism in a present age that often values cynicism. At one point in the novel, for example, Beth recalls when she had just delivered their first child and her husband Henry, who had been present at the birth, frantic with concern over what he felt was her excessive hemorrhaging, physically confronted the doctor; ultimately Henry was proven correct with his “farmer” diagnosis and subsequently helped to save his wife’s life.

Emotion is the novel is genuine. Characters at times behave badly, good people who sometimes smoke and drink too much and are capable of betraying one another. These are characters occasionally unsettling in their remarkable resemblance to the rest of us.

Above all else, though, Butler is a skilled storyteller. Through his graceful but unselfconscious use of language, his tale emerges seamlessly, and both events and characters that might as first appear unlikely, in his hands seem inevitable. The essential values that we hold as Midwesterners emerge and reaffirm the faith that we have in humanity.

And the shotgun lovesongs? Singer-songwriter Lee impetuously wrote lyrics and melodies at a dark point in his life, shotgun style, resulting in a best-selling music album.

Those readers who enjoy Shotgun Lovesongs may look forward to the publication of Butler’s next book, a collection of short stories entitled The Chainsaw Soiree.