From the Publisher
“Shotgun Lovesongs is about a hometown in Wisconsin and the close band of friends who will always feel its magnetic pull. … The most lyrical parts of this big-hearted book are about how all the characters, including the star, are almost physically drawn to the town and one another. … Impressively original.” The New York Times
“Sparkles in every way. A love letter to the open lonely American heartland…A must-read.” People
“We all have them, right? Those songs that indelibly mark the milestones in our lives? Songs that stir up our deepest feelings and remind us of who we are. … Only the best, most emotionally resonant novels work in the same way. Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs is one of those novels.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Totally smitten. That was me, within four pages of the beginning of Shotgun Lovesongs. … This is one of those books you step into, but never want to leave.” Reedsburg Times-Press
“The kind of book that restores your faith in humanity.” Toronto Star
“A dreamy novel that leaves readers with a lasting impression about friendship and its purpose -- to teach, inspire, and, most of all, fill our hearts with love.” Wilkes Barre Times-Leader
“Nickolas Butler ripped my heart out with rare honesty and good old-fashioned unapologetic love. A book that makes you want to call old friends. A writer who makes you feel more human than you thought possible.” Matthew Quick, New York Times bestselling author of The Silver Linings Playbook
“Nickolas Butler has written a Midwestern masterpiece and has done for the modest splendor of verdant farmlands what Larry McMurtry did for the brutal beauty of small-town Texas.” Ambert Dermont, author of the New York Times bestseller The Starboard Sea
“This is a novel about home, and home is how the book feels.” Josh Weil, award-winning author of The New Valley
“An unswervingly bighearted and compelling novel about an indie rocker made good and his best friends back home in Wisconsin...a soaring, meditative chorus of voices. And it's absolutely beautiful.” Dean Bakopoulos, author of the New York Times Notable Book Please Don't Come Back from the Moon
“You will be moved to laughter and tears, plugged in to a melody that brilliantly shares the story of all our lives.” Benjamin Percy, Pushcart Prize–winning author of Red Moon
“A beautifully written, heartfelt novel about young men in the Midwest grappling with the slipperiest bits of life. Read Shotgun Lovesongs with caution--these guys will stay with you for a while.” Katie Crouch, New York Times bestselling author of Girls in Trucks
“Hooray for this warm, wise, bighearted book.” Emily Jeanne Miller, author of Brand New Human Being
“What a cracking book. Full of heart, full of compassion, full of characters who have you rooting for them from the very first page.” Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee, short-listed for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize
“There is also a profound empathy for the characters and the small-town dynamic that the reader will likely share, an appreciation for what 'America was, or could be.'” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Its power comes from its honesty and the way in which the author sees as much value in life's smaller moments as in its big. … A beautifully written, big-hearted celebration of the enduring power of different kinds of love.” The Independent (UK)
“One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I know you’ll love it – and you will want to put it in the hands of everyone you know, and say – ‘just read it.” OurWindsor
“Nick's literary focus...explorations of the human quest for meaning and value...is a much-needed addition to contemporary fiction in that it explores beyond the conventional repositories of 'self'--job security, family bonds, for example--and reintroduces us to the settled world of nature, where we can explore into both new and ancient meanings of the term.” James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer-Prize winner on Nickolas Butler
Butler uses multiple narrators to tell the story of a group of friends, born and raised in Little Wing, Wis., in this affecting but precious debut novel. The book opens with Hank, who became a farmer and stayed in the small town to raise a family with his wife Beth. Lee, the indie rocker who made it big but regularly comes back to Little Wing, has his say, along with Kip, who traded commodities in Chicago but has moved back. And Ronnie is a little “slow,” damaged by rodeo riding. Their voices and their memories create a rich, overlapping narrative that is, at bottom, a love letter to the Midwest and its small, mostly forgotten towns. The characters are in that restless period of their early 30s: Hank and Beth have a family, but both long for something different (including more money); Lee gets married and divorced and wrestles with fame (the title of the book refers to a bestselling album of his); Kip is trying to write the next chapter of his life. The author romanticizes the landscape and the notion of community—as if such ideals were limited to small town, agrarian dreams. More seriously, his characters are too similar—all of them too lyrical and too insightful. Butler’s prose is often beautiful, and the narrative churns along well, but the book just isn’t convincing enough to get the reader to buy all the way in. First printing: 150,000 copies. (Mar.)
Leland (Lee) Sutton left his tiny Wisconsin town when he became a famous rocker but returns when the pressures of fame and an unsuccessful marriage are too much for him. Butler's debut novel uses multiple narrators and a nonchronological structure to tell the story of Lee and his circle of friends; best friend Henry (Hank), a farmer with a hidden talent for painting; Hank's wife, Beth, who had a brief, secret romance with Lee; outwardly arrogant but inwardly insecure stock trader Kip; and lost soul Ronny, a former rodeo rider and recovering alcoholic. VERDICT While not ignoring the economic hardships of contemporary rural life, Butler stacks the deck a bit in favor of small-town values vs. big city shallowness. Overall, though, this is a warm and absorbing depiction of male friendship. Lee and Hank's compassion toward Ronny is particularly touching, and Beth, the sole female narrator, is as nuanced and believable a character as her male counterparts. With the author's connection to indie musician Bon Iver and a movie deal already in the works, expect interest and demand. [See Prepub Alert, 9/9/13.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
A debut novel that delves so deeply into the small-town heartland that readers will accept its flaws as part of its charm. "Write what you know" is the first dictum directed toward aspiring fiction writers, and there's no doubt that Butler knows his fictional Little Wing inside out. It's a Wisconsin farm town not far from Eau Claire, where the author was raised, and it holds a central place in the hearts of those who came of age there—particularly the four men who were boyhood friends and who narrate the novel's alternating chapters, along with the fifth, a woman who was the childhood sweetheart of at least two of them. Beth and Henry are the married couple who remained to farm in Little Wing and, despite their financial struggles, are in some ways the envy of the others. Lee, who is Henry's best friend, has become "America's most famous flannel-wearing indie troubadour," an artist so successful he hobnobs with those that others know mainly from celebrity magazines. But he only feels at home in Little Wing, where he found his voice and wrote the songs on the album that catapulted him to fame (and gives the novel its title). Kip made millions for others and did well for himself as a broker in Chicago but has returned to Little Wing to restore its mill as a commercial center and to show off the beautiful woman who will be his wife. Ronny left town as a rodeo rider and an alcoholic and has returned to recover after a brain-damaging mishap. There are four weddings in the novel, a few separations, a bunch of drunken adventures and confessions, and a fairly preposterous ending. But there is also a profound empathy for the characters and the small-town dynamic that the reader will likely share, an appreciation for what "America was, or could be." Despite some soap-opera machinations and occasional literary overreach, the novel will strike a responsive chord in any reader who has found his life reflected in a Bob Seger song.
Read an Excerpt
SHOTGUN LOVESONGS, Ch. 1
WE INVITED HIM TO ALL of our weddings; he was famous. We addressed the invitations to his record company's skyscraper in New York City so that the gaudy, gilded envelopes could be forwarded to him on tourin Beirut, Helsinki, Tokyo. Places beyond our ken or our limited means. He sent back presents in battered cardboard boxes festooned with foreign stampsbirthday gifts of fine scarves or perfume for our wives, small delicate toys or trinkets upon the births of our children: rattles from Johannesburg, wooden nesting dolls from Moscow, little silk booties from Taipei. He would call us sometimes, the connection scratchy and echoing, a chorus of young women giggling in the background, his voice never sounding as happy as we expected it to.
Months would pass before we saw his face again, and then, he would arrive home, bearded and haggard, his eyes tired but happily relieved. We could tell that Lee was glad to see us, to be back in our company. We always gave him time to recover before our lives resumed together, we knew he needed time to dry out and regain his balance. We let him sleep and sleep. Our wives brought him casseroles and lasagnas, bowls of salad and freshly baked pies.
He liked to ride a tractor around his sprawling property. We assumed he liked feeling the hot daylight, the sun and fresh air on his pale face. The slow speed of that old John Deere, so reliable and patient. The earth rolling backward beneath him. There were no crops on his land of course, but he rode the tractor through the fallow fields of prairie grasses and wildflowers, a cigarette between his lips, or a joint. He was always smiling on that tractor, his hair all flyaway and light blond and in the sunlight it was like the fluff of a seeding dandelion.
He had taken another name for the stage but we never called him by that name. We called him Leland, or just plain Lee, because that was his name. He lived in an old schoolhouse away from things, away from our town, Little Wing, and maybe five miles out into the countryside. The name on his mailbox read: L SUTTON. He had built a recording studio in the small, ancient gymnasium, padding the walls with foam and thick carpeting. There were platinum records up on the walls. Photographs of him with famous actresses and actors, politicians, chefs, writers. His gravel driveway was long and potted with holes, but even this was not enough to deter some of the young women who sought him out. They came from around the world. They were always beautiful.
Lee's success had not surprised us. He had simply never given up on his music. While the rest of us were in college or the army or stuck on our family farms, he had holed up in a derelict chicken coop and played his battered guitar in the all-around silence of deepest winter. He sang in an eerie falsetto, and sometimes around the campfire it would make you weep in the unreliable shadows thrown by those orange-yellow flames and white-black smoke. He was the best among us.
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 anthemsthey were our bullhorns and microphones and jukebox poems. We adored him; our wives adored him. We knew all the words to the songs and sometimes we were in the songs.
Kip was going to be married in October inside a barn he'd renovated for the occasion. The barn stood on a farm of horses, the land there delineated by barbed-wire fences. The barn was adjacent to a small country cemetery where it was entirely possible to count every lichen-encrusted tombstone and know how many departed were lying in repose under that thick sod. A census, so to speak. Everyone was invited to the wedding. Lee had even cut short the leg of an Australian tour in order to attend, though to all of us, Kip and Lee seemed the least close among our friends. Kip, as far as I knew, didnt even own any of Lee's albums, and whenever we saw Kip driving around town it was inevitably with a Bluetooth lodged in his ear, his mouth working as if he were still out on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange.
Kip had just returned to Wisconsin after about nine years of trading commodities in Chicago. It was as if the world had just gotten small again. For years, decades, our whole lives, really we'd listened to the farm reports in our trucks on the AM radio. Sometimes you'd even hear Kip's voice during those broadcasts as he was interviewed from his office down in Chicago, that familiar self-assured baritone narrating fluctuations in numbers that dictated whether or not we could afford orthodontia for our children, winter vacations, or new boots, telling us things we didnt exactly understand and yet already knew. Our own futures were sown into those reports of milk and corn prices, wheat and soy. Hog-bellies and cattle. Far from our farms and mills, Kip had made good, manipulating the fruits of our labor. We respected him just the same. He was fiercely intelligent, for one thing, his eyes burned in their sockets as he listened intently to us complain about seed salesmen, pesticides, fertilizer pricing, our machines, the fickle weather. He kept a farmer's almanac in his back pocket, understood our obsession with rain. Had he not gone away, he might have been a prodigious farmer himself. The almanac, he once told me, was almost entirely obsolete, but he liked to carry it around. "Nostalgia," he explained.
After he returned, Kip bought the boarded-up feed mill downtown. The tallest structure in town, its six-story grain silos had always loomed over us, casting long shadows like a sundial for our days. Very early in our childhoods it had been a bustling place where corn was taken to be held for passing trains, where farmers came to buy their fuel in bulk, their seed, other supplies, but by the late eighties it had fallen into disrepair, the owner having tried to sell in a time when no one was buying. It was only a few months before the high-schoolers began throwing stones through the windows, decorating the grain silos with graffiti. Most of our lives it was just a dark citadel beside a set of railroad tracks that had grown rusty and overgrown with milkweed, ragweed, fireweed. The floors had been thick with pigeon shit and bat guano, and there was a lake of standing water in the old stone basement. In the silos, rats and mice ran rampant, eating the leftover grainsometimes we broke inside to shoot them with .22s, the small-caliber bullets occasionally ricocheting against the towering walls of the silos. We used flashlights to find their beady little eyes and once, Ronny stole one of his mother's signal flares from the trunk of her car, dropping it down into the silo, where it glowed hot pink against the sulfurous darkness, as we shot away.
Within ten months Kip had restored most of the mill. He paid local craftsmen to do the work, overseeing every detail; he beat everyone to the site each morning and was not above wielding a hammer or going to his knees, as needed, to smooth out the grout, or what have you. We guessed at the kind of money he must have thrown at the building: hundreds of thousands for sure; maybe millions.
At the post office or the IGA, he talked excitedly about his plans. "All that space," he'd say. "Think about all that space. We could do anything with that space. Offices. Light industry. Restaurants, pubs, cafs. I want a coffee shop in there, I know that much." We tried our best to dream along with him. As young children, we had briefly known the mill as a place where our mothers bought us overalls, thick socks, and galoshes. It had been a place that smelled of dog food and corn dust and new leather and the halitosis and the cheap cologne of old men. But those memories were further away.
"You think people will want to have dinner inside the old mill?" we asked him.
"Think outside the box, man, he crooned. Thats the kind of thinking thats killed this town. Think big."
Near the new electronic cash register was the original till. Kip had saved that, too. He liked to lean against the old machine, his elbows on its polished surface while one of his employees rang up customers at the newer register. He had mounted four flat-screen televisions near the registers where it was easy to monitor the distant stock markets, Doppler radar, and real-time politics, talking to his customers out the sides of his mouth, eyes still trained up on the news. Sometimes, he never even looked at their faces. But he had resurrected the mill. Old men came there to park their rusted trucks in the gravel lot and drink wan coffee as they leaned against their still warm vehicles, engines ticking down, and they talked and spat brown juices into the gravel rock and dust. They liked the new action that had accumulated around the mill. The delivery trucks, sales representatives, construction crews. They liked talking to us, to young farmersto me and the Giroux twins, who were often there, poking fun at Kip as he stared at all those brand-new plasma television screens, doing his best to ignore us.
Lee had actually written a song about the old mill before its revival. That was the mill we remembered, the one, I guess, that was real to us.