Author Nickolas Butler’s Godspeed is a runaway heartstopper, a thriller by a writer with considerable literary chops. From the start of his latest novel, Butler sets the twin horses of ambition and morality galloping, pulling the reader in opposite directions. With Butler at the reins, we are left gaping at the twists, near misses, and the brutal-yet-beautiful outcome.
Hailing from the Eau Claire area, Butler regularly features Wisconsin landscapes and local craft beers in his novels, including Shotgun Lovesongs, The Hearts of Men, and Little Faith, and his short story collection Beneath the Bonfire. Even though Godspeed takes place in Wyoming, Butler’s fans will recognize the central dilemma of working-class men trying to make their way in a changing America. The plot revolves around three young builders—Cole, Bart, and Teddy—who land the opportunity of a lifetime: if they can complete an ambitious construction project in the beautiful and remote terrain of Jackson Hole, they will earn lifechanging bonuses and establish their fledgling company in a hot real estate market. However, the three builders must complete the project within a dangerously short deadline. The stakes rise as the young trio discovers why other builders have turned down this deal offered by their wealthy and exacting client, Gretchen, a high-powered attorney and the visionary behind the $20 million mountainside home.
Butler’s novels are marked by his generous and yet clear-sighted interest in human nature, often reflected in characters capable of doing both good and evil. In this novel, the three builders are life-long friends, regular guys. Their dreams are not lofty; respectively, they want to own their own home, take a place in Jackson society, and find a small slice of the life of ease they see around them. Butler’s special insight is to connect the ways in which the builders’ dreams and determinations fuel but also unravel them, including a depiction of drug addiction that invites readers to consider the many darknesses into which one might slide.
Gretchen, the powerful client behind the project that fuels Butler’s story, also provides a point of view that reminds us that the wealthy, sometimes easy to demonize, have their own demons—and can earn a reader’s love. (Wait until you see why she orders, but does not eat, a rare steak each day for her lunch.)
Butler’s prose moves like a rushing river, and the beauty of this novel—with its scenery and its tragedy—unfolds like a night sky in the west. We Wisconsin readers will return from its windswept peaks to recognize ourselves, our own Jackson Holes right here, and the friendships that can be the last tethers to one’s own humanity.