Nickolas Butler’s strong debut novel created an anticipation of excellence for his second novel, “The Hearts of Men.”
Butler lives in Wisconsin, where he set “Shotgun Lovesongs.” His inspired selection of a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin is the focal point for his second novel, a 50-year retrospective of an evil event. The setting combines beautifully with a couple of generations of complex characters seeking paths to redemption for a variety of shortcomings.
Protagonist Nelson Doughty’s struggle with an abusive father; his small, frail body, and his compulsive need to play by the rules leave him isolated and vulnerable to the thoughtless cruelty of teenage boys.
A singular, sickening act in 1962 defines the lives of Doughty and the only person who remotely resembles a friend, an older teen named Jonathan Quick.
A fascinating codependence grows from this childhood relationship that eventually envelops Quick’s progeny and sweeps in the moral ambivalence of Vietnam, the challenges of women’s lib and a bizarre millennial coming-of-age tale.
Propelled by his pain, Doughty leaves his broken home for a private academy, then West Point, then killing sprees crawling through the Viet Cong’s underground network of tunnels.
Quick, meanwhile, rises to riches as a businessman, but neither he nor his family can find fulfillment.
The rest of the narrative draws heavily on Doughty’s role model, the camp’s longtime Scoutmaster Wilbur Whiteside, whom Doughty eventually follows in running the camp. Like most of Butler’s characters, Whiteside is as flawed as he is inspirational. He devotes himself to the development of honest, upstanding young men as penance for an act of cowardice that saved his life in World War I.
For 258 pages, “The Hearts of Men” speeds along with devastating descriptions of the cruelty inherent in adolescent bullying and other forms of torture that come from standing out in a homogeneous culture.
But the plot twists once too often, looking forward to 2019 through the eyes of Quick’s widowed daughter-in-law, and the writing breaks down into something that is too predictably plotted to compare to the stylistic sophistication the reader has grown to expect. Perhaps the author stumbling awkwardly across the finish line is a perfect metaphor for the imperfections of the lives he examines.
The disappointing conclusion does not undermine the lessons that Butler teaches about the betrayal, abandonment and hurt that people inflict on one another. But given Butler’s remarkable skills, “The Hearts of Men” offers a reminder of how frustrating it is to encounter a good book that could have been great.
Jim Spencer is a Washington correspondent for the Star Tribune.
The Hearts of Men
By: Nickolas Butler.
Publisher: Ecco, 392 pages, $26.99.
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