• December 27, 2014

Totally smitten with ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’

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Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2014 4:30 am

It all seemed like a good idea.

You’d graduate from high school and take three months to bike across country. Or build a house. Or start a business, hitchhike Europe, or any other harebrained plan your teenage minds thought up. It would be a bonding experience. Friends forever.

It didn’t take long to learn that, sadly, plans and friendships are fragile things, and in the new novel, “Shotgun Lovesongs” by Nickolas Butler, both are riddled with holes.

Leland Sutton never gave anybody a straight answer when asked about the title of his first album. “Shotgun Lovesongs” was about suicide, a tribute to another band, a nod to heartbreak, a different reason every time. It was what made Lee famous, and what took him away from the small town of Little Wing, Wis.

Lee was perhaps Little Wing’s most famous son, but Ronny Taylor was the town’s first major celebrity. Ronny had been a rodeo rider once, flat-stomached, and cool under pressure and on a bull. Ronny’s only flaw was that he was an alcoholic, which is how he ended up a little bit not-quite-right. Everybody loved him anyhow, mostly because of his big heart.

Few knew that Lee paid most of Ronny’s bills.

Kip Cunningham wasn’t aware of it, in fact, but there weren’t a lot of things Kip was privy to anyhow. He’d always kept his boyhood friends at arms’ length and, truth was, he didn’t really quite fit in. He wasn’t good at people things; he was good at making money. So it came as quite a shock when he bought the ancient mill that towered over Little Wing — and it failed, financially and spectacularly.

Solid, dependable Henry Brown watched his friends’ worlds widen, but his home was on his western Wisconsin farm. His wife, Beth, was his life. His kids were his life. All he’d ever really wanted was in the town where he’d grown up. Little Wing was where he could go to the VFW, and they knew him. It was where his friends came home when they wanted to let their hair down.

It was where his heart was broken.

Totally smitten. That was me, within four pages of the beginning of “Shotgun Lovesongs.”

Butler wraps his story around the universal experiences of nearly every small-town teen: pilfered pilsners drunk by headlight in a cornfield; hanging out somewhere you think is unknown to everybody else; realizing that your neighbors gossip about you. It’s a familiar feeling: we somehow know the businesses Butler writes about. We know his characters — or at least someone very much like them — and that gives readers a comfortable sense of home on every page.

This is one of those books you step into, but never want to leave. It’s got a great keep-you-guessing plot, a satisfying cast, and an easy touch to it. And if that’s what you need, then isn’t reading “Shotgun Lovesongs” a good idea?

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