At the heart of SHOTGUN LOVESONGS, Nickolas Butler’s dazzling debut novel, is the friendship shared by four men and one woman, now in their early 30s. Henry (Hank), who stayed in Little Wing, runs the family farm and is happily married to Beth. Kip, a former commodities broker who left for college, made his fortune in Chicago, and returns to Little Wing after buying and restoring a boarded-up feed mill downtown. Ronny is a recovering alcoholic and local rodeo star who is left “a little slow” following an alcohol-related accident. At the center of the friendship is Leland, “Lee,” the musician in the group whose first album, Shotgun Lovesongs, has made him rich and famous. Lee has just returned to town from Australia, run-down and tired, so he can attend Kip’s wedding to Felicia. His friends know not to bother him his first few days back, letting him decompress and fall into the slow rhythm of the town.
"This is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s about the power and intricacies of friendship and the pull of home. The setting and description of Little Wing is pitch-perfect, almost a character in itself."
Lee has traveled the world, touring as a musician, but is happiest when he is home in Little Wing, where all pretenses fall away, and everything and everyone is pure, asking or wanting nothing from him other than his presence. This time, however, Lee is bringing Chloe, a famous actress he is dating, to Kip’s wedding. Chloe arrives, and so do the paparazzi. Lee is annoyed at this spectacle, but when he finds out that Kip is the one who tipped off the media and photographers to their presence, he is infuriated by his betrayal. Lee leaves for New York City with Chloe, and the next time his friends hear from him, it’s in the form of four airplane tickets and an invitation to his wedding to Chloe in New York. Kip is not invited.
Butler structures the novel by letting the characters narrate their own chapters in their particular voices to tell their collective story. Friends since they were children, Henry, Beth, Lee, Ronny and Kip are bound together by their shared history and how it is irrevocably tied to the Wisconsin landscape that they either never leave, like Henry, Beth and Ronny, or find themselves returning back to, like Lee and Kip.
Ronny, who has tried to leave the town several times, says: “This place has some crazy kind of gravity. I know that’s a funny word to use, a big-sounding word, but I’ve thought about it. It must have some kind of power otherwise Lee wouldn’t have never come back --- but he did. And Kip and Felicia. Not to even mention all them people who never left to begin with, people like Henry and Beth and Eddy, and the Giroux twins. Hell, they didn’t make it as far afield as even I did when I was a rodeo. And you know, it’s crazy, but it was on those mornings when I left town, trying to run away, I felt it most. That pull.”
That “pull” is what makes SHOTGUN LOVESONGS so special. All the characters recognize that their connection to the sacred land, the simple rituals of everyday life, and their loyalty to one another are what give their lives meaning. Long before Lee becomes famous, Ronny has his stage name “Corvus” tattooed on his chest: “I still can’t believe you ever did that,” Lee said, reaching out to touch his friend’s tattoo. He shook his head and smiled. ‘“I believed in you,’ Ronny said with all the earnestness in the world.”
Lee marries Chloe, but readers know it’s a doomed marriage when he asks her if she can see themselves living in Little Wing, just like “normal” people, and her response is: “People like you and me, Lee, we don’t live in small towns.” When Lee returns to Little Wing after his short-lived marriage is over, we find out who inspired many of the songs in Shotgun Lovesongs, and it is this secret that reveals another betrayal within their tight-knit group.
This is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s about the power and intricacies of friendship and the pull of home. The setting and description of Little Wing is pitch-perfect, almost a character in itself. Early in the book, when Henry is describing the lyrics in Lee’s songs, he says: “He wrote songs about our place on earth: the everywhere fields of corn, the third-growth forests, the humpbacked hills and grooved-out draws. The knife-sharp cold, the too-short days, the snow, the snow, the snow. His songs were our anthems --- they were our bullhorns and microphones and jukebox poems.” SHOTGUN LOVESONGS is Nickolas Butler’s love song to the fictional town of Little Wing, Wisconsin.
Reviewed by Jennifer Romanello on March 13, 2014
- Publication Date: March 11, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
- ISBN-10: 1250039819
- ISBN-13: 9781250039811