Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Shelf worth: 4/5
"I'm reading a book about Wisconsin," I told my boyfriend smugly. (I have no idea why, but it made me feel incredibly worldly-wise in a way that reading a book about California say just wouldn't.)
That smugness was entirely wiped away after one of the loveliest first chapters I've read in an age. I spent my teens growing up in the countryside, and there was a lot that rang true here albeit in the context of the USA's ridiculously massive country. Hampshire doesn't really compare.
In this first chapter I fell entirely in love with life in the farming country of the eastern USA. And above all, I fell in love with Henry Brown. Handy that, I won't have to change my name when we get married.
Nickolas Butler's book is one of those sickeningly good debut novels that makes you wonder if there is any talent left for anyone else. It's the story of four longtime friends in their early 30s: quiet farmer Henry, a classic "rock" and married with children to his sweetheart Beth; Lee, a superstar musician who always returns to their home town of Little Wing to gather himself; Ronnie, a former rodeo star and alcoholic who lost something in his mind after a drunken fall; and Kip, a city sensation in Chicago who has moved back to Little Wing to marry, and rebuild an old mill.
It's a book about friends, but not one that I've ever read before. There is no "...And Things Will Never Be The Same" plot, just friends who have known each other through ups and downs for years, and who will continue to do so for decades to come.
One of many beautiful moments comes when Lee describes the sunset as a synaesthete would, in terms of music and specific notes for each colour as it falls. Shotgun Lovesong is a synaesthete sunrise in reverse: as the book progresses, you slowly get the full beam of Little Wing, of the characters and of the story as it unfolds. My one qualm was that initially the male characters all rather blended into one, but they soon get unpicked and reveal themselves.
Something I particularly enjoyed was getting to know Beth, and Kip's wife Felicia. Henry initially dismisses them as "our wives and children", like a pack brood of cattle when the focus is on his friends, but both women are drawn terrifically and with significantly more realistic qualities than other literary male writers manage *cough, Franzen*. As much as I love Henry, and am intrigued by the initially repulsive Kip, it was never a let down to come to a Beth chapter - Butler gives his characters rich lives, and quietly unreels plot lines that feel as natural as they do surprising.
This is a warm, gentle book that gathers you up with such calm efficiency that the moments of properly golden writing - of which there are several - leave you slightly dumbstruck. A description of a wedding has some lines that seem destined to last forever. This isn't a book to be smug about, but rather, a book to revel in, and then to share.