Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronnie have grown up together in the tiny rural community of Little Wing, in Wisconsin. Later, their paths diverged; only Henry has remained true to his roots, farming the land like his father did and marrying his lifelong friend Beth. Both Kip and Lee remind Henry of how small and insignificant his life might seem to outsiders; Lee is a famous musician, and Kip a wealthy businessman who leads the high life, making martinis in women's high heels and generally misbehaving. Their different reactions to Ronnie, now a brain-damaged alcoholic, when back in town for a wedding, show Henry what these men are really worth. But Henry's loyalties are soon to be shaken in an even more fundamental way...
Shotgun Lovesongs sways between being easy, pleasant and totally forgettable to saying something much more interesting. Told in the alternating voices of the four friends and Beth, it was Lee's story that I found the most gripping. His vivid account of his early days as a musician, living on a hundred dollars a month and working in a freezing outhouse warmed only by coffee and an open fire to force himself to finally do some songwriting rings true. So does what happens during that time to inspire his first album, Shotgun Lovesongs. Similarly, Beth's narrative is interesting because it is the flipside of Lee's; as she admits, she is 'untalented', but her evident kindness, intelligence and empathy makes her stand out as much as Lee does as she helps a succession of wives and girlfriends negotiate both the men's tight friendship group and the unfamiliar landscape of Little Wing, whether that is by sharing lipstick or buying 'buttery nipple' shots and bemusing the local barmaid.
It is Henry's voice that was the weakest aspect of this book, for me. Kip and Ronnie's chapters feel like sidelines to the main narrative, but Henry is clearly meant to be the heart and soul of the story. However, unlike Beth - a seemingly ordinary woman made less ordinary by her inter-personal gifts - Henry seems genuinely run-of-the-mill, although Butler seems to be going for a 'salt of the earth' depiction of the goodness of an everyday man. Indeed it is Lee who is more distinguished by his generosity, which is not merely financial. Butler's writing is competent and readable, but not special enough to elevate Henry in the way I felt he needed to be elevated if the ending of the novel is to work. The Wisconsin setting, similarly, had great potential, but is presented through a soft-focus Instagram filter, which means that it never feels quite real. In general, the novel balances realism and romanticism fairly well, with a strong depiction of rural poverty, but loses its grip occasionally - for example, in the sappy depiction of another wedding celebration near the end of the novel, which relies too much on cliche in its description of a close-knit community.
This is a heartwarming and feel-good read which I have no doubt will be genuinely enjoyed by a lot of readers; and as I've suggested, it also has real strengths. I personally was looking for something with a bit more bite - more of the 'shotgun', and less of the 'lovesongs'.