Unraveling the Heart
best-selling local author Butler explores fathers, sons in powerful new novel
Entering the Court-n-House late one Wednesday night, I scan the room to spot best-selling author Nickolas Butler punching his selections into the jukebox along the far wall. Bearded and baseball-capped, he turns to greet me, then nods to the freshly fried onion rings piled high in a basket: “Help yourself to some rings,” he says. For a moment, we fool ourselves into believing we’re just a couple of guys out for a beer. Though we’re more than that. We’re also somebody’s father, somebody’s husband, and somebody’s son.
Yet on every page of his profoundly powerful novel, Butler chooses to focus on the living. His characters humble us into the recognition that though we are all flawed, we are all still worthy of forgiveness.
All of which are roles featured prominently in Butler’s second novel, The Hearts of Men, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut, Shotgun Lovesongs. While one of the climactic events in the new novel has been percolating since Butler was a teenager – the result of enduring a betrayal by his father – the words didn’t begin to flow until a chance conversation with a stranger on a plane.
Butler had just buckled up for a bumpy ride to Cincinnati to promote Shotgun Lovesongs, when he and the man beside him began to chat.
“We had a really good rapport,” Butler begins, “and we were having a nice time.” But when Butler informed the man that he was a writer, and that he was thinking about writing about some of his father’s mistakes, his seatmate turned quiet. The silence hung heavy for the remainder of the flight, though upon disembarking, the stranger offered one last thought: “I hope you’ll take it easy on your dad in the book,” he said. And then, he was gone.
As a result of that conversation, Butler began to realize that his book was less about assigning blame and more about the struggle of finding forgiveness for the people we love the most.
“My dad, I think, was a good dad in a lot of ways,” Butler says. “But he was really flawed in some important ways.” He remembers one conversation he shared with his father in which his dad described generations of Butler men who had struggled in their role as fathers. “But,” his father added, “you will be better than me. And hopefully, your son will be better than you.”
In his novel, Butler explores these complexities by way of his central character, Nelson Doughty, who in the book’s opening pages, is a reticent, 13-year-old bugler at a Boy Scout camp in 1962. The book traces his evolution over 60 years and three generations, while also tracing his friendship with Jonathan Quick, a Boy Scout buddy who Nelson reconnects with 34 years after their summer together. Prior to dropping off his own teenaged son at summer camp, Jonathan, his son Trevor, a female friend, and Nelson gather to break bread at a supper club. While there, Nelson watches as Jonathan reveals a heartbreaking secret to his son, one with the power to unravel their relationship, a fissure that never quite heals.
Already the recipient of rave reviews – including much-sought-after “starred reviews” from both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly – The Hearts of Men is already well on its way to garnering the same national acclaim Butler received for his previous novel. And much like Shotgun Lovesongs, Chippewa Valley readers will be treated once more to a world they wholly recognize. Set in Eau Claire, Butler references a number of local locales: the Eastside Hill, Haymarket Landing, Water Street, and UW-Eau Claire. But you needn’t be from here to feel at home in Butler’s world; his subject matter – for better or worse – makes us all feel at home.
“What’s it mean to be a good man?” I ask him, reaching for the last onion ring. “Is it telling a son a tough truth, or forgiving a father for doing the wrong thing?”
He pauses to mull it over.
“I think there’s a trap in the title,” he begins. “When you’re a male writer and you have a book called The Hearts of Men people assume you’re creating a statement about hypermasculinity or something. But men, in this context isn’t just men, it’s people.” Indeed, the book’s third section features a prominent female character struggling to define her own moral code, and as Butler explains, throughout the book, “moms are just as important as dads.”
In the book’s epigraph, Butler borrows a line from poet Sharon Olds’ “Known to be Left”: “Have faith, old heart. What is living, anyway, but dying.”
Yet on every page of his profoundly powerful novel, Butler chooses to focus on the living. His characters humble us into the recognition that though we are all flawed, we are all still worthy of forgiveness. Our reckoning is our path to salvation, or at least our path to a purer heart.