Like many Wisconsinites, I’ve spent plenty of summer nights listening to family and friends reminisce and tell stories as our campfire turned to embers. On some nights, the stories move between genres as the tellers take their turns: horror turns to comedy, or a somber memory leads to glad reflections. Long after the fire is out, the best stories—like the smell of wood smoke—often follow you around for days. So it is with Nickolas Butler’s new collection of short stories, Beneath the Bonfire.
As in his fiction debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, this collection is characterized by a strong sense of place. Butler describes the Wisconsin landscape in “Morels” as a “part of the world left intact by the last glaciers that steamrolled the surrounding land, leaving it utterly flat. The Driftless Area, like a postcard of what had been.”
In “Train People Move Slow,” Butler conjures one of the many Wisconsin towns built around a paper mill. “Behind me, the river moved huge and slow, one great broad brown stroke of movement and sound, and beyond it I heard a whistle from the paper plant and the beeping sound of a forklift in reverse.”
Butler’s gift for filling a page with evocative imagery is matched by a narrative voice that pulls you in. Using language that’s direct but rich with meaning, Butler can devastate you with the smallest of moments, as in “The Chainsaw Soirée” when a man’s insecurities are laid bare by a simple gesture. “We held hands and approached the great double doors of the church and just then Bear opened them in tandem and stood before us, his beard long and black, his eyes sparkling blue and the color in his cheeks bright from laboring outdoors. I felt Nancy’s grip on my hand slacken.”
Although some of the stories in Beneath the Bonfire veer toward the conventional—a lonely young woman clings to an abusive lover, old friends grow apart, a man fears the loss of his girlfriend—Butler finds a way to subvert our expectations. “In Western Counties” feels in many ways like the classic tale of a rogue cop who goes outside the law to combat corruption in the community (in this case western Wisconsin farmland stands in for a gritty, urban setting). But instead of a Clint Eastwood-type, our hero is a retired female police officer struggling with early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Justice seems to be on Butler’s mind in this collection. In the case of “Sweet Light Crude,” when a retired eco-terrorist forces an oil executive to drink the very crude that was spilled in the gulf, we’re forced to question our own quick assumptions as Butler reminds us that behind the corporate suit is just a person.
These stories aren’t all grit and revenge. Though some deal with the worst of people—abusive dog-fighters or drunken revelers who flee from a tragic automobile accident—others, like “Apples,” are mellow reflections on finding happiness. In many ways, it’s the distance between these stories that makes them so satisfying to read again and again.
A poet as well as a novelist, Butler succeeds admirably in the short story form. In Beneath the Bonfire, he’s given his readers a portrait of emotional depth and sprawling Wisconsin lands through stories that traverse the hills and valleys of joy and sorrow.