Shotgun Lovesongs

review: Anita Paddock

By Nickolas Butler
St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages: $25.90

Shotgun Lovesongs is Nickolas Butler’s first novel. Set in the fictional town of Little Wing, Wisconsin, it follows a group of friends in their early forties. All are tied to their hometown, and even those who left for bigger places and bigger lives, keep returning to the place where they grew up. The draw is not only the town they know so well, but each other. These two things, their complicated friendships and the allure of small town America, drive this remarkable story.

Each of the characters helps tell their story. There’s Hank, who struggles to keep the family farm in business. He and his wife, Beth, have two children, and they are the anchor that keeps all the friends together.

While Hank stayed on the farm, his classmate Lee left town, became a rock star, and traveled the world, sending gifts from China or Africa back to his high school pals. He is the most famous of the group, and the entire town thrives on its connection to him and his music. It was his first album, Shotgun Lovesongs, which he wrote and produced in a modified chicken coop, that brought him his first success. Lee periodically returns to a farm he owns in Little Wing to rest from his tours. He drives his tractor around his land, and spends time with Hank and Beth’s family. He also supports Ronny, an alcoholic bull-rider and rodeo champion whose numerous head injuries have left him less the man he once was. Ronny still has his strong rodeo physique and kind spirit, and it is his character that I liked the most.

Another friend, Kip, made millions as a commodities trader in Chicago. He is the least liked and understood, and that plays a role in what happens when he returns to Little Wing for his wedding and extravagant reception.

As the pals gather for the wedding, they find it difficult to not let jealousy and old wounds fester. Before Hank and Beth were married, Lee and Beth were involved, and neither has quite gotten over it. In fact, on a night when the alcohol is flowing, Lee decides to tell Hank how he feels about Beth, a confession that threatens to tear the group apart.

And as we explore the friends’ lives, we’re also getting a good look at small town America, with its quirks and charm, and we start to understand what it means to be part of a community where everyone seems to know what’s going on in everyone else’s life.

Butler uses Wisconsin, with its fertile soil and hard winters, as if it’s another one of the book’s main characters. This is where the author grew up, and where he now lives.

Shotgun Lovesongs is a compelling story, filled with insight into what makes our friendships last through good times and bad, what keeps us longing for home, and what makes us love the ones we do.

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