Isn’t “Shotgun Lovesongs” a great title? Debut author Nickolas Butler has written a beautifully quiet novel, a lovesong to Wisconsin.The story follows the joys and heartbreaks of five friends who have been friends forever, growing up together in a small Wisconsin town. One of them, a musician, becomes famous. Another finds great financial success in Chicago. Two of them marry and farm the land together. The last is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a rodeo star but has to quit when he is injured. They all lead very different lives, but their ties to Little Wing, Wisconsin run deep, and those who have left find themselves returning to their hometown often. Sometimes it’s to prove to themselves and others that they’ve made it, and other times it’s to find comfort and solace in the familiar.
The novel takes a bit of time to pick up – I found myself wondering where the conflict would come in. And really, aside from a rather shocking revelation, there isn’t anything cataclysmic. These are, for the most part, regular people living regular lives. Which may not sound interesting or worthy of a novel, but the character’s innermost thoughts are conveyed with such beauty. And their struggles are so relatable – there is unrequited love, money troubles, divorce, but always great friendship. These five friends love each other, and that love has informed their entire lives.
Butler is a beautiful writer – he captures small town America in a heartbreaking, exquisite way. There is one particular scene that I will probably always remember – Leland, in his early days as a performer, does a set in a small town on Lake Superior. He opens for a bluegrass band. He describes their music as “a giant bucket of water poured over a great tree, fully leaved, the notes dividing and dispersing themselves down, gradually growing smaller and smaller, joyously running, bouncing, flowing down, down, down from leaf to leaf, as if racing one another. And everyone started dancing…and the whole town embraced me – literally embraced me – swung me into their square dances. And I have to say, that was the first time I ever understood what America was, or could be. America, I think, is about poor people playing music and poor people sharing food and poor people dancing, even when everything else in their lives is so desperate, and so dismal that it doesn’t seem there should be any room for any music, any extra food, or any extra energy for dancing.”
I hope there’s more from this author. I hope he continues to remind us what makes America, America.