Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: "The Hearts of Men" by Nickolas Butler

At the risk of sounding like a total stalker, I would follow Nickolas Butler nearly to the ends of the earth in order to read his writing. I devoured his debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs (see my original review), while on a not-particularly long plane ride, and was equally infatuated with his story collection, Beneath the Bonfire (see my original review). Butler's books made my lists of the best books I read in 2014 and my favorite books of 2015, respectively.

While his newest book, The Hearts of Men didn't slay me quite as much as his first two books, there was still so much to savor, so much to feel, and so much of Butler's storytelling and use of language to be dazzled by. The book opens in 1962, at Camp Chippewa, a scout camp in Wisconsin. Thirteen-year-old Nelson Doughty is a consummate scout, one who probably has higher-level skills than any of his fellow campers, perhaps even his counselors. But while his achievement of 27 merit badges to date should be impressive, it doesn't give him the social acceptance he craves. Nothing does, really—even his talent with the bugle, which allows him the opportunity to play reveille each morning, has earned him the nickname "Bugler," and it's not meant in a flattering way.

"Nelson has no friends. Not just here, at Camp Chippewa, but also back home in Eau Claire, in his neighborhood, or at school. He understands that this is somehow linked to his sash full of merit badges...possibly, his unpopularity is linked as well to his eyeglasses, though it might just as easily be his inability to dribble a basketball or throw a spiral, or, worse yet, the nearly reflexive way his arm shoots into the classroom air to volunteer an answer."

While Nelson is a loner, if there is anyone he can consider even an acquaintance, it's Jonathan Quick, a fellow scout two years his senior. Jonathan can do everything right and is socially adept, but the two boys strike up an unsteady, slightly one-sided friendship. That summer, Nelson begins to understand the concepts of loyalty, bravery, trust, and what it means to be a good man. He has to make some difficult choices, choices which don't endear him to many, including his father, but he understands the steps he takes.

The second section of the book takes place 34 years later. Nelson, bearing physical and emotional trauma from his time in Vietnam, is now the scoutmaster at Camp Chippewa, and in the evening before camp begins, he gets together with Jonathan and his teenage son, Trevor, who has taken to scouting as well as Nelson did all those years ago. That evening, it is Trevor who learns what it means to be a good man, and understands just what kind of a man his father is, despite all of the stories he has heard from Nelson over the years about what a friend Jonathan was to him when they were younger.

It is the third and final section of the book, 23 years later, which packs the strongest emotional punch, and yet is also the most frustrating. Nelson is in his final summer as scoutmaster before retirement, and Jonathan's grandson, Thomas, and his daughter-in-law attend camp for another summer week. But the dynamics of a scout camp are lost on the youth of this generation, and the characteristics of manhood are lost on their fathers as well. When a troubling incident occurs at camp, Nelson once again demonstrates the simple act of bravery.

The Hearts of Men raises some interesting questions about manhood, bravery, loyalty, and what it means to be "a good man." At the same time, it looks with a critical eye at both the weaknesses and the strengths of men, and how they all too often don't realize the consequences of their actions. This is a book about fathers and sons, but also mothers and sons, and how some relationships—both platonic and romantic—can change us forever.

I love the way Butler writes. He imbues so many of his characters with complexity, emotion, and flaws. I just didn't understand the point of introducing the melodrama in the third section of the book—it really undercut the book's power, especially in a section where there was so much raw emotion. I think I get what he was trying to say, but I could have done without it, and for the most part, the story would have resonated as much, if not more.

While imperfect, The Hearts of Men is still a masterfully written, powerful, beautiful book, and another example of Butler's exceptional storytelling talent. I remain an enormous fan of his, and will now begin my vigil for his next book. (Sorry, Nickolas, to put added pressure on you; I'm just impatient and I'm a fast reader.)

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