Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Eyrie by Tim Winton
I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel before I started it – Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicholas Butler. A story about a group of friends who grew up in a small, Midwestern town who drifted down their paths in their 20’s, only to all gravitate back home in their 30’s. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this one before. Friendship, enduring, bighearted, heartbreaking, “love you man,” yadda-yadda. Well, scratch that – this thing is bigger & better than all that noise. This Butler dude’s got some serious chops.
True, the heart of this story is kind of what I described there – Hank married Beth & stayed in Little Wing, Wisconsin to be a farmer. Ronny worked the rodeo circuit across the Midwest until a drunken accident drove him home for good. Kip went to Chicago & got rich, only to return home to try and make something of himself. Lee went out into the world and became a celebrity, a rock star, the pride & joy of his home town. But Little Wing always held sway over him, drawing him back into its orbit – and the orbit of his close friends.
Right, we’ve been there before. Nothing spectacular, on the surface, right? But Butler has something else planned for this one – a far more lyrical, lushly composed ode to the idealized Middle America of yore. Two pages in, writing about Lee’s music:
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.
Just when everything seems straightforward and you think you’re just getting a tale about some friends doing their thing, Butler drops lines of incredible vivaciousness and beauty on you.
And in the backyards clothes pinned to lines snap in the cooling-down breezes that signal autumn’s arrival, that elegant season, that season of scarves and jackets, that season of harvest and open night windows and the best season for sleep.
And then snow. Snow to cover the world, to cover us. The forests that in October threw hallucinogenic confetti at the world now withdrawn, bereft, composed, and suddenly much thinner, looking like old people who know their time has just about come.
Reading this made me pine for seasonal changes, fields of corn, forests, snow, cold air. The tiny, fading town of Little Wing with its VFW watering hole, brought to a rebirth by Kip’s refurbishing of an old mill for retail space made me wish for better things right where I live. Couple this book with my recent read of Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy and I start to wonder what I’m doing in this balmy, Republican, shapeless town on the far coast. This morning I read a Grantland piece about a group of volunteers who maintain the abandoned lot where Tiger Stadium stood in Detroit for 97 years before demolition in 2009. The sense of history for these people is so pervasive, they mow and weed an empty 9-acre lot in the middle of urban Detroit so that people can remember what happened there in their youth, so they can stand where great baseball players once stood and did great things. My current town has no such history. Or if it does, no one seems to care much and they’d rather just keep paving, paving, paving.
But I digress.
As much as Shotgun is that ode to the American Midwest, it is also about the complicated friendships between these men and women. And it’s certainly a novel about marriage, in a lot of ways. Marriages feature prominently in the lives of all the characters, meaning something different for each one of them. Circling around everything else is the theme of the bonds of friendship; how sometimes old friendships supersede all else, while sometimes they just complicate everything. The moral compass seems to be Hank – but when his compass gets cracked by the long-ago actions of those he cares about the most, he has a hard time righting the ship. As most of us would. That’s the best part about all of these people – more than just their fallibility, it’s their tangible reality that so entrances you. They’re just like you, me, and all the people we know. And we love them for it.
Honestly, I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Surprised at how I felt connected to the characters, with their faults, mistakes, dreams, friendships. Surprised at how much I wanted to see this town in Wisconsin. To listen to the breeze through the cornfields. To sit on top of the old mill and watch the colors of the sunrise – or to hear the colors as Lee does. It really was just a beautiful story, filled with a cast of very realistic, loveable, fallible people from a vivid, colorful – average – town in middle America. They are us and we are them.