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: the anthems of our youth, our wedding songs, the old classics that are as much a part of our lives as our feet beneath us. It’s what makes music so powerful, the head and the heart and the gut all working in concert.
Only the best, most emotionally resonant novels work in the same way. Nickolas Butler’s “Shotgun Lovesongs” is one of those novels. In prose that is as plain-spoken and honest as a Midwestern farmer, he tells the story of five friends and lovers in the fictional Little Wing, Wis.
There’s Lee, the local kid made good, a world-famous musician (it is purported that his character is based on Bon Iver) who returns to Little Wing and his friendship circle when the world of stardom and his celebrity marriage prove fallible. He’s testing Thomas Wolfe’s adage about coming home. The results, it turns out, are mixed.
Kip, another of the fivesome, is testing the same theory. He has made millions on the Chicago Exchange floor, but he returns to Little Wing with his beautiful and accommodating wife in an effort to rediscover himself. He restores the town mill in hopes of bringing the floundering Little Wing back to its feet. Kip never felt as much a part of the fabric of the community as the rest of his friends, and he’s bound to show he belongs.
Ronny had his own bout with celebrity. A rodeo star on the rise who drank too much, Ronny has suffered a brain injury and wanders the town and his circle of friends as a kind of simpleton. He sees how he’s pitied and protected, and he hates it. All he wants is a normal life, some autonomy, and for his circle of friends to be the way they used to be. His naiveté is heartwarming and authentic and a perfect contrast to the complicated relationships Butler builds throughout the book.
The heart of this novel, though, are Henry and Beth, husband-and-wife farmers who redefine salt-of-the-earth. Their struggles to make ends meet, to recognize the strength of their love, to navigate the perils of their past and their futures, to keep their friendships afloat, are a thing of sheer beauty.
In the background — like the steady beat of a kick drum — the town of Little Wing and the farmland that surrounds it come to scintillating life. It’s a place that drove these people apart, and brought them back together. Likely you’ve driven through a town like Little Wing, and maybe you were listening to your favorite album when you did. That feeling you had? You’ll find it in these pages. Like you’ve known these folks all your life, and are damned glad for it.
Peter Geye, the author of “Safe From the Sea” and “The Lighthouse Road,” lives in Minneapolis.