And one book I outright hated: Shotgun Lovesongs.
18 July 2014
by Nickolas Butler
Well, I'll say this for Nickolas Butler's novel Shotgun Lovesongs: it jolted me out of my "meh" week of reading. Mainly because I hated it so, so much.
If you are not familiar with this novel, be aware that critics are treating it like the second coming.* (And: really? Two reviews in the New York Times? They can't find any other new novels around to review?) Because of all its good press, and because it is by a Wisconsin author, I thought I would give it a try. I must admit that the description of it at Powell's is not one that would have made me pick it up otherwise: "In this love ballad to the Midwest, author Nickolas Butler gives us a glimpse inside small-town Wisconsin. The novel follows a circle of friends — a farmer, a rock star, a businessman, a mother, and a rodeo cowboy — as they each come to grips with the choices and events that have set the course in their lives."
If I'd read the phrase "love ballad to the Midwest" before I requested the book from the library, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But one day I was casting about for something to read, and as my sister had been asking me about this one too, I thought, well, I'd better read this. I only got about three chapters in and I was having a pretty strong reaction to it (much the way one "reacts" to milk when one is lactose intolerant, just to keep my metaphors suitably "love ballad to the Midwest"ish). So yes, I probably should have put it down. But then I read another review that said Butler had a real touch with writing his main female character, so I thought I'd stay with it through one of her chapters, and by the time I was done with that, I thought, well, hell, I just need closure now. And I got closure, in the form of a completely stupid "insight" about marriage, that I will not reveal to you, but which I will say was the lamest, most surface, most conventional "insight" about marriage ever, and one which, in the course of my twelve married years and my many more years of observing many other marriages, is almost completely untrue.
So what was there to dislike?
Well, perhaps I can best sum it up like this: this book is "Man Lore" to the extreme. Which should be no surprise, it's about a group of small-town Wisconsin friends in the two decades (give or take a few years) after their high school graduation. The story is told from several of the friends' points of view, as well as the point of view of one of their wives, and yes, each chapter is headed up with the initial of the person doing the talking ("B" for Beth, e.g.). Now this is your first problem. If I can't tell who's talking from your writing, without someone's name or initial at the head of the chapter, then you, Mr. or Ms. Lazy Writer, are not properly doing your job.
Forget the Midwest; most of the men telling the stories in this book talk like they're in an old Western:
"Ronny dried out in the hospital over the course of several months, often restrained in his bed, and we came to the hospital to hold his hand. His grip was ferocious, his veins seemed everywhere ready to jump right out through his sweaty flesh. His eyes were scared in a way I had only seen in horses. We wiped his forehead and did our best to hold him down to the earth." (p. 7.)
Brother. There's a whole lot of passages like that. Here's salt-of-the-earth farmer Henry describing how he and his wife Beth get ready to go to their other friend Kip's wedding:
"Beth changed her ensemble five times that morning, switching out her shoes, her necklaces, her earrings. I understood. Had I owned more than one suit, I would have done the same thing. As it was I just sat in a battered old chair in our bedroom and watched her. She was beautiful to me. I could see that she had shaved her legs, supple and taut above the easy grip of her heels. She mussed her hair and pursed her lips at the mirror.
'What do you think?' she said finally, turning to me.
I stood and went to her, understanding right then that we were already growing older, that we would grow old together." (p. 30.)
As if that isn't painful enough, they actually share a little slow dance together after that.
Now, if I may? I actually am a Midwestern farmer's daughter. And let me paint you a little picture of how real dairy farmers get ready for a wedding:
"Mom rushed around with her dress unzipped, yelling at her daughter to call out to the barn and see where the hell Dad was. She did, and her brother told her their Dad was still out raking hay; rain was forecast the next day and acres of hay were going to get wet and ruined if they didn't get it put in the barn before that. The girl reported this news to her mother, who muttered, 'every damn time we have a wedding to go to...' before dashing off to finish making a cold cuts plate and salad for her brothers' supper. The girl sighed. She'd been counting on having Mom and Dad out for the afternoon, but now she knew they probably wouldn't leave in time for the ceremony and that they'd also probably have to leave the reception right after bolting some supper because Dad hadn't missed a milking, morning or night, in twenty-five years, and he certainly wasn't going to tonight for some stupid wedding dance."
Stick that in your "love ballad to the Midwest" pipe, Butler, and smoke it.
Anyway. I digress. Here's the takeaway: if you want to read a novel about a bunch of small-town Boy Men who are in love with a bunch of their Boy Men buddies, and one of their wives, who actually seems like a pretty unpleasant woman in her own right--she advises a friend who wants a baby (but whose husband is dragging his feet on the subject) to "make a mistake" with her birth control--then boy, do I have a novel for you.
If, on the other hand, you do want to read an authentic and beautifully written book about the Wisconsin experience, and one which features actual adult men who think about someone other than themselves at least every now and then, do yourself a favor and go get Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. You'll thank me, I promise you.
*This last review really hurt me, because it was by Jonathan Evison, whose novel All About Lulu I loved.