Nickolas Butler's debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, follows five life-long friends, now in their mid-thirties, as they contemplate the road their lives have taken and where that path is likely to lead them in the future. The story revolves around the relationships these individuals have formed with each other and with their community, as all are drawn back home, unable to truly escape the pull of their small Midwestern town and each other. Each character narrates several chapters, sometimes relaying current events but more frequently ruminating on past experiences that have led to a specific point in life; through their stories readers learn of their loves, hopes, dreams, disappointments and secrets.
The highlight of the novel is the author's brilliant artistry in completely capturing the transition common to most people: that point when an adult loses the idealism of youth (when everything seemed possible) and realizes that life has followed a trajectory that now limits options. It's the point when people understand some dreams just can't come true and either learn to be content with what they have or decide drastic changes are necessary to achieve happiness. It's not so much a "coming-of-age" story as an, "OK, I'm of age, now what?" story.
While the themes very much reflect the American heartland, they're also universal enough to hit home for most readers. The author has a lot to say about the importance of family and friends in one's life, and I thought his assertions were remarkably perceptive. Several times I found myself reading a section and realizing his observations were exactly spot-on.
Butler's writing is descriptive and lush, painting a perfect portrait of small-town life, relaying scenes so beautifully and vividly they pop off the page even for those of us born and bred in a big city. In one chapter a wedding is taking place in an old barn, and those in attendance join in singing Elvis Presley's I Can't Help Falling In Love With You for the couple because something has gone awry with the arranged music:
We were a town then, all together, a band of friends and strangers all clad in our Sunday best, and we were touching, holding hands, and singing, our voices shooting straight up into the rafters and moving the flames of the candles, our voices enough to reverberate off the rusted tin roof and echoing out into the fields... I felt Ronny's hand in mine, his well-calloused skin, and I squeezed it and I felt sad for him, and at the same time happy to be beside him, happy that he was there. Just then I remembered holding his hand in the hospital all those years before, and I felt my throat thicken. And I felt my wife's soft hand too, and touched with my thumb her veins and her nails, and inside my heart was a great well of love that I knew was not just overflowing but infinite...The song ended, but I did not let go of the hands of those two people I loved, and throughout the barn I could tell others had done likewise, clinging to their friends and family and the travelers who had come to witness this wedding inside a barn.
I felt myself surprisingly moved by this section and others in which the various narrators express how much their friends have meant to them over the course of time.
Shotgun Lovesongs is one of the more enjoyable reading experiences I've had in a very long time, but the novel won't appeal to all readers. This is very much an observational book, more about discussing universal truisms than telling a story, and so some will likely find it too meandering for their taste, without enough of a plot to hold interest. As much as I liked the novel, I didn't feel drawn to pick it up – I wasn't chomping at the bit to get back to it – although once I did start reading it I found it nearly impossible to put down because I enjoyed the imagery so much. Also, the book is a very male-oriented novel (four out of the five narrators are men), and at times what action there is becomes a little too macho and so may lose some of its potential female audience; I've seen some describe it as a "bromance" and I don't think that description is out of line.
Regardless of these quibbles, Shotgun Lovesongs is a remarkable debut, one which is sure to garner much acclaim from readers and critics alike. Book groups in particular will want to consider this one for discussion as its themes definitely have the potential to provoke interesting conversation.
This review was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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