I imagine the enormity of Bob Dylan’s success casts quite a shadow on the town of Hibbing, Minnesota, much like the success of Leland Sutton on fictional Little Wing, Wisconsin – the setting of Nickolas Butler’s debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs. While reading Lee’s story in the novel, I couldn’t help picturing a young Dylan. This does nothing but illuminate my personal bias. However, my personal imaginings altered a bit when I learned that the author attended high school with Bon Iver founder and singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. Bon Iver’s debut album was recorded in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, fictional Leland Sutton’s album was recorded in a Wisconsin chicken coop. I imagine that Bon Iver’s story at least partially inspired Butler’s novel. For better or worse, I now picture (and hear) Justin Vernon in place of Dylan – not that that will prevent me from quoting him.
“You can’t be wise and in love at the same time.”
Bob Dylan certainly said it, but I’m pretty sure he lived it a time or two. Each of the five main characters in Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs thoroughly embodies the sentiment as well. Kip, Ronny, Leland, Henry, and Beth grew up in Little Wing, Wisconsin, a small town just outside of Eau Claire. Although the men have moved freely and fluidly though life, they’ve all ended up back in Wisconsin. Kip gave up his successful Chicago brokerage to return and restore an old mill. Leland, an indie singer-songwriter sensation, longs for the comfort of the people who’ve always known him. Ronny, formerly the town drunk, gives up his rodeo days to be subjected to a life of sobriety after a severe head injury. Henry, always dependable and stable, takes over his family’s farm and marries Beth. And Beth, she’s known each of the men their entire lives. All five characters are so inextricably woven in the fabric of each other’s life that it’s impossible to tell where one begins and another ends.
Shotgun Lovesongs is a quiet novel, exploring the intricacies of small town life and love. It’s hard to possess your own identity when you scarcely have a single memory without your best friends by your side. Birth, death, life, love, marriage, divorce, sunrises, and sunsets are spent together. Fights are had and pickled eggs are stolen, all while four men (and one woman) try their best to grow up, settle down, and find satisfaction. This novel is unassuming and anonymous, it’s as much a story about character as it is a story of place – how a person’s life is shaped by their hometown, whether they down roots or put the town in their rearview mirror. Ultimately, it’s a beautifully written love letter to the Midwest.
America, I think, is about poor people playing music and poor people sharing food and poor people dancing, even when everything else in their lives is so desperate, and so dismal that it doesn’t seem that there should be any room for any music, any extra food, or any extra energy for dancing. And people can say that I’m wrong, that we’re a puritanical people, an evangelical people, a selfish people, but I don’t believe that. I don’t want to believe that.
The novel’s chapters alternate between each of the character’s perspectives, giving insights and opposing viewpoints to the events occurring in the novel. Although the voices started to blend together, overall I enjoyed getting multiple perspectives. It saved the characters from being too one-dimensional, particularly Kip and Ronny. If there’s an issue to be had with the novel, it was the female characters. They felt a bit flat and unrealistic – particularly Beth. Although I am entirely one to nitpick (sorry!), the idea that Beth just one day became a runner to get back in shape is ridiculous. It takes more than a willing attitude to pick up and run five miles on back country roads. Aside from that, I loved the perfectly titled Shotgun Lovesongs*. It’s warm, comforting, and quiet. The novel embraces the meaning of moving on, coming home, and finally finding where you are supposed to be – even if it means leaving behind what you thought you wanted. 4/5, for fans of Richard Russo and Chad Harbach.
Do you ever picture well known actors or musicians in fiction? It’s not something I usually do, but it felt right (in both cases). Although I will admit to mentally casting my favorite novels after I read them – frequently. If only Stephen King would consult my next time he’s interested in adapting The Stand for film or television…
This novel is best served with Baked Gnocchi with Sage and Cheese Sauce (via Culinary Ginger), a dish similar to what war served at Kip’s wedding. Maybe listen to a little Skinny Love by Bon Iver while you’re at it…
*I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.