Excerpt from The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Hearts of Men

A Novel

by Nickolas Butler

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler X
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2017, 400 pages
    Dec 2017, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Gary Presley

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Print Excerpt


That night, Nelson lies in bed reading his Handbook for Boys by the light of his lantern. A moth bangs against the lantern's glass globe. Nelson rests the book down against his pale chest. Outside his tent are the sounds of laughter and of campfire sizzling and popping, of zippers yapping and outhouse doors clapping shut, the sounds slowly diminishing until the silence is punctuated only rarely by a cough, perhaps, or the long, low, wet note from a recently purchased dime-store whoopee cushion. The moth bounces again and again and again off the globe until reaching out a hand, and careful not to harm the creature, Nelson captures it in his fi He feels the tiny thing, the hair of its legs, the tickle of desperation in its wings, the curiosity of its antennae. Opening his fingers he examines the moth resting in the palm of his hand.

For all his knowledge of knots, the constellations, poisonous mushrooms, rocks, minerals, and the trout streams of northern Wisconsin, Nelson knows next to nothing about moths. He blows a jet of air at the little creature and it alights from his hand, only to return to its fascination with the lantern. What instinct is this? he wonders. Does it think it has touched the moon? The sun?

Then: the sound of boots moving fast through the forest. Nelson's heart quickens. More footfalls, branches breaking, leaves tossed aside. Shrugging into a shirt, wrestling into trousers, and slipping on his boots, he readies himself. Then, calmly closing his eyes, he blows out the lantern, and counts to five. Slides his eyeglasses onto his face. When he leaves the tent, his pupils are wide, wide open, drinking in the light spilled by the moon and the stars. He holds his breath and listens. Far off he hears them, other Scouts, he supposes, crashing through the forest. He follows, moving low to the ground.

Thrilling it is, this night chase, and, Where are their flashlights? Their lanterns, even some crude torch? Why the cloak and dagger? Then he realizes, These must be the deviants, the ne'er-do-wells Wilbur is in search of. He moves all the faster for it.

How he navigates the wind-fallen sentinels, fuzzy with their thick green carpets of moss. Through groves of ferns, patches of raspberry canes sharp as concertina wire, and through aspen slash so young and tight it might as well be bamboo. And every few minutes, just to be sure, Nelson sinks to one knee, cups his hands around his ears, wills his own heart to slow, and focuses on the night sounds all around him. Only the flow of his own blood is nearly deafening: in the smallest veins of his ears, in his swollen hands and feet, but most of all his forehead and chest, where he feels his own circuitry sizzle with excitement.

But no sounds come to his ears. Not so much as a hoot from an owl, a tree frog chirping, not a single cicada rasping and rattling against the night. Nothing. And now, Nelson realizes, he is very far from his tent in a very dark forest, no path beneath his boots, no flashlight against the cold sweat of his hand.

His heartbeat seems to double in time now. With no idea even of what time it is, his first thought is the next morning's reveille. He cannot disappoint Scoutmaster Wilbur. And so, ever so silently he turns, hoping to retrace his steps, picking his way back the way he came.

Then: a sound—the snap of a branch.

It is not far off. Nelson ducks down, his head even with the fronds of the bracken. More sounds, breaking twigs, plants pushed aside. He lowers himself flat to the forest floor, where the salamanders and snakes and snails squirm, he knows, against the cool rot of the soil.

Whoever else is in the forest at this moment will not be his friend. Only now he cannot cry for help. Cannot expect his troop's leaders to protect him, or Jonathan Quick, or even his father.

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From The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler. Copyright 2017 Nickolas Butler. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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