Thursday, 7 November 2013

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Shotgun Lovesongs, Nickolas Butler's debut novel is due for release early next year. It is full to the brim with love and nostalgia for smalltown life. At the core, however, is the endless story of friendships that can stand the test of time - and betrayal.

We follow the four 30-something childhood friends Henry, Lee, Ronny and Kip who all have taken very different roads in life. Henry is the traditionalist, who took over his father's farm and is living the farmlife with his wife Beth and their kids. Lee is now a successful musician who travels the world, but always returns to the town Little Wing. The former rodeo Ronny always wanted to leave, but after a drunken accident, his brain never fully healed, and he finds himself unable to leave the town where people now look at him funny and tell him what to do and not to do. And finally we have Kip, the Chicago "bigshot" who returned to town with his bride Felicia, and bought the run-down old mill in an attempt to make something happen in Little Wing.

If it sounds like this book has a very male focus, it's not the case. Henry's wife Beth has a very strong central role on the story. So do the other wives. In fact, the book might have been called 4 Weddings and a Shooting (as there is no funeral), because the action that drives the story forward all happen at the weddings of each of the men. The novel starts as Kip is getting hitched to Felicia. Lee returns to town for the wedding, and brings his Hollywood girlfriend with him. At Kip's bachelor party, Ronny meets his future wife to be. Kip manages to thoroughly alienate Lee at his wedding, and the consequence is that Kip and Felicia are ignored by everyone in town for a while. 

The story then skips forward in time to Lee's Hollywood wedding in New York. Lee's paid for Henry, Beth, Ronny and Lucy, Ronny's girlfriend, to come to the wedding. The point of view shifts between the different characters, and we learn from Beth that since Kip and Felicia's wedding, she and Felicia have become very close friends. We also learn of Beth and Lee's secret history.

Once again the storyline skips until the next wedding. This time it's Ronny and Lucy's time to walk down the aisle. But not all the other 3 couples are doing so well anymore. Lee's wife has left him, and Lee's determined to stay permanently in Little Wing. Kip and Felicia are having serious problems as well. Felicia is determined to have children, but Kip cannot imagine himself being a father. Even Henry and Beth, the perfect couple, are going through hard times. In a moment of utter despair, Lee confessed his and Beth's secret to Henry, and the consequences are devastating.

The final wedding is ten years back in time. Henry and Beth's wedding. Beth the most beautiful bride imaginable. Henry and Beth carrying on traditions, in more ways that one. And while Lee is thinking back on the day his best friend married the most beautiful woman he knew, he is trying to patch things up with Henry in maybe not the smartest way.

So why this obsession with weddings? It brings people together, it breaks people apart? It brings to the table strong emotion and leaves room for confrontations, both between people and inside a person? It carries on tradition and the hopes for the future? I really find it interesting how Butles makes it one of his strongest recurring motifs in the story. I guess it might be because a wedding is symbolically one of the most important events in an adult person's life. It is a catalyst for change in a life which can indicate who you are, what you are, where you are.

Love, friendship, family, tradition, home. Butler approaches these universal themes with great tenderness and care. I'm not from a small town like Little Wing, but I really understand the complicated relationships the characters have to the town that is home to them. The contradiction between the desire to stay and the will to leave. Hopes, dreams and disappointments. I am also getting close to that age when I will look back on my life and try to make sense of my status quo and question my choices.

I am asking myself if this novel is Butler's ode to his own hometown of Eau Clair, set close to Little Wing in the novel. And is this novel his "shotgun book", to prove to himself that he can do it? If so, he has me convinced. The characters are authentic and real. All flawed, all sympathetic, all with their own reasons, their own codes of conduct, their own internal battles and contradictions. They are just people like me and you, going about their lives trying to make the best of things. If you read it, they might just inspire you.

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