BIG REVIEWS: Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men

Local Store Shopkeep , photos by Luong Huynh

Chippewa Valley novelist Nickolas Butler’s new book, The Hearts of Men, has been racking up fantastic reviews over the last week – since he released it right here in the Volume One Gallery at a packed reading. Butler’s first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs was a New York Times bestseller. See what people are saying about his latest ...

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The Hearts of Men has much to say about goodness and its opposite; about honor; and about manhood, its difficulties and precise texture. How it equivocates, how it can protect or maim. It’s not news that we’re shaped by events. But the dealt cards make for only half the game; the other half is how we play them. We are bullied, our father abandons us, our spouse up and dies. Do we give up, fall to bitterness, become stronger? That determines who we’ll be. Do we do good or do we do bad? Moral choice is the spur that sends this novel on its forward gallop. But, in a neat and difficult trick for an author to pull off, the characters’ ethical decisions are as thrilling as adventures of the flesh. – Darin Strauss, The New York Times

“Butler achieves a rare triple play here of brilliant characterizations, a riveting story line, and superlatively measured prose, putting him in the front ranks of contemporary American writers of literary fiction.” – Booklist  

With its attention to Boy Scouts, baseball card-collecting and other “stuff not on the tip of people’s tongues right now in 2017,” Butler acknowledges the “measured sentimentality” found in The Hearts of Men. He recalls a quote from the late Michigan novelist Jim Harrison: “The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.” Likewise, Butler maintains, “You have to tackle love, you have to tackle disappointment, you have to tackle passion—all those things that create fiction with a pulse.” – Steve Nathans-Kelly, Paste Magazine

Nickolas Butler’s second novel vividly reveals what I might have missed — and certainly feared. Not that The Hearts of Men is a Stephen-King-does-Scouting tale, though the gag-inducing latrine scene qualifies. But then, Scouting is more complicated than most of us ever imagine. And, as Butler aptly shows in this compelling coming-of-age tale, learning to be a good man — or a good woman — is no less so. – Don Oldenburg , USA TODAY

"I was sorting through some feelings about being a young dad with a young son and thinking about my own dad," Butler says. "... And there you go. ... I had this book inside me at this time. It needed to get out."

Like his characters, Butler also grew up in Wisconsin and went to Boy Scout camp from age of 7 to 17. (He started as a Cub and worked his way up to Eagle.) He says the Boy Scouts gave him a love of nature along with a strong sense of right and wrong. "This is sort of hokey in the 21st century, but it goes back to a lot of these old scout laws or ideas: loyalty, bravery, kindness. Stuff like that." – Lynn Neary, NPR’s All Things Considered

Nickolas Butler’s strong debut novel created an anticipation of excellence for his second novel, “The Hearts of Men” ... – Jim Spencer, The Star Tribune

Butler’s debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs (2014), explored the forces that bind and erode friendship among a group of young men growing up in a Wisconsin town. This book mines a darker seam, delving into the roots of the male character and how it may be shaped by a code of behavior or an exemplar and warped or strengthened by trauma. He presents few strong women characters, but the exceptions suggest he has much to offer in that area. Butler’s mostly unembellished prose delivers a well-paced, affecting read. – Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Last week, the book was People Magazine's "Book of the Week." Overseas, the book has already busted out to a great reception, especially in France, where it was a finalist for the 2016 Prix Médicis Etrangere. 

The Hearts of Men

Nickolas Butler

Synopsis: Camp Chippewa, 1962. Nelson Doughty, age thirteen, social outcast and overachiever, is the Bugler, sounding the reveille proudly each morning. Yet this particular summer marks the beginning of an uncertain and tenuous friendship with a popular boy named Jonathan. Over the years, Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. And when something unthinkable happens at a camp get-together with Nelson as Scoutmaster and Jonathan’s teenage grandson and daughter-in-law as campers, the aftermath demonstrates the depths – and the limits – of Nelson’s selflessness and bravery. The Hearts of Men is a sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity, the challenges and rewards of lifelong friendships, the bounds of morality—and redemption. Buy it!

MORE: Read about the book in Volume One. Butler's first novel, Shotgun Lovesongsis a New York Times bestseller. Beneath the Bonfire is a collection of Butler's short stories. 


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