Monday, June 8, 2015


Nikolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs was one of my favorite reads from 2014, so my anticipation was high when I saw he had a new work coming out. When I learned it was stories rather than a novel, I felt a little dip in my anticipation, because I sometimes struggle to connect with stories. As soon as I cracked the first page of Beneath the Bonfire I knew I had nothing to worry about. Here is the opening to the first of ten stories in Beneath the Bonfire, entitled The Chainsaw Soiree (seriously, Butler had me with the title):

They squatted in an abandoned Pentecostal church high on the bluffs over a river, and when the rain or snow was heavy, the roof leaked and the church was loud with the dripping of water in metal buckets, and when the land was dry beneath the floorboards of the church, hundreds of rattlesnakes shook their maracas at the heat and only at night would the place fall into silence. I had visited sometimes in the spring when the snakes were lethargic and hungry for the sunlight, and we had stood around the church with machetes and rakes and turned the yellow grass red. It was a beautiful spot.

I am none too fond of animals meeting their demise in books, but when it's done with such an exquisite turn of phrase, how can one complain? Butler is a beautiful writer, and he gives his work a sense of place that is second to none. I say that as a tough audience for scene descriptions. I'm all about dialogue, character, and action, so when an author can make me clamor for another paragraph about setting, you know he's throwing heat. Take this entry, start of the heartbreaking Rainwater:

The old man and his grandson sat on the porch swing watching it rain. They swung according to the old man's rhythm; the little boy's feet dangling, his shoelaces untied, still inches off the sinking porch. Water collected in the grooves of the dirt and grass two-track driveway, and toward the barn chickens bobbed their heads and cooed low, high-stepping as they pulled earthworms free from the saturated black soil. A flag drooped heavy on its rusted and listing pole.

No reader could doubt where we are for this story, and much of the beauty is in the little, seemingly meaningless details - untied laces, sinking porch, driveway grooves. It's not often I picture scenes in my mind, but these are so good the painting is done before I even know it. Rainwater is a quiet chest-kicker of a story (my only reading notes - "***"), and it's at one end of the spectrum on which Butler writes. I'm not sure any writer guts me so deftly with such different instruments. Sometimes a violent thrust you see coming, other times a disemboweling so gentle you almost miss it until you've bled out.

When those stories are placed back-to-back in a collection, you get a bright light view of just how good Butler is. Take Morels, a story of three men, old friends bonded as family, who now have different lives yet meet to hunt for morel mushrooms. As usual, the stage is perfectly set:

The three men moved over the south-facing slopes above the valleys, their faces low to the ground, eyes sweeping the forest floor like midday searchlights. Their pursed lips clamped joints of marijuana, and over their shoulders their smoke went like the thick white whiskers of a beard in vain neglect. Bathed in the tang of smoke, they wet their lips occasionally with bottles of beer that they carried through thee forest in a heavy backpack, the bottles a set of oddly muted chimes.

But as sometimes happens when beer and drugs enter the mix of a day, things can get violent. Morels is a story rife with physical devastation and its aftermath. Yet as physical as Morels is, it packs no more powerful a punch than the story that immediately follows, Leftovers, which is a quiet tragedy of emotional devastation that eviscerates the reader just as surely and cleanly:

A bad quiet envelopes their marriage. Mason imagines a small-town telephone booth from which he calls her and waits for her voice. She answers, her voice like a very cold wind traveling through thousands of miles of telephone wire. Then she puts him on hold, leaving him there, through all time, waiting for either a dial tone or a dead click. Neither of which ever come. He grows older in that telephone booth, so much older, until it becomes his glassy coffin.
I realize I'm quoting an awful lot of text here, but I want to force-feed it to you until you cry "Uncle!" and run to your local indie and buy a copy. It's that good. Beneath the Bonfire is a collection of stories that makes you nervous and keeps you on edge, waiting for the pretty to turn painful; stories of relationships and family bonds (of blood and otherwise) that focus on the decisions people make and how those around them pay a price. Whatever price you pay for this book, it'll be worth it.

STREET SENSE: A stunning set of ten stories that seem to fit together seamlessly, despite being written over a ten-year period. Evoking harsh and unforgiving landscapes as the backdrop for harsh and unforgiving scenes, but written with a grace that makes you wish you were in them.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Again from Rainwater, this is one paragraph:

So Friday nights he and the boy drove into town, ate supper at the diner beside the railroad tracks, watched passing trains, shared a sundae. Drove to the hardware store and bought die-cast trucks and tractors, little-boy underwear, overalls, thick socks, T-shirts, and sweat shirts. The little boy falling asleep across the bench seat of the old man's pickup truck as they jostled down country roads and toward the fallow farm, where the old man would park, admiring this little boy before lifting him out and carrying him inside, to his own bed, where he lay the boy and pulled the sheets and the gray wool blanket up and over his shoulders and kissed his forehead and touched his little-boy ears and then sat listening to his alarm clock tick and waiting for the sound of his daughter's car to come down the driveway until at last he went to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of cold coffee and wrung his hands and wondered silently how he had failed her.

COVER NERD SAYS: One of the great things about this cover is how it matches up with the cover of Shotgun Lovesongs. Same font, complimentary palette and imagery. I love everything about these covers together, but even taken as a solo image I would have picked Bonfire off a shelf or table without hesitation. And I would have recognized it as a book by Nikolas Butler even without seeing his name, which is pretty smart. These both float my cover nerd boat.


Katie McD @ Bookish Tendencies said...

Covers are SO pretty. I found a cheap version of Shotgun Lovesongs from a used book store, so will be giving it a go hopefully sooner rather than later. Loved your review!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Aren't they fabulous? Yay for finding a bargain copy of Shotgun! I initially read a library copy and had to buy one for my shelves. Hope you like it, too!

Shannon @ River City Reading said...

I don't know why, but I've been so nervous about this! I think because I'm just starting to love short stories have only loved those that are really weird...I'm worried I won't like this and I loved Shotgun Lovesongs. I think you convinced me, though ;)

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I don't know how convincing I was, but I was also REALLY worried. Both because of my love of Shotgun and my horrible history with short stories. 90% of the time I just don't get 'em. I think you might like this bunch. Not really weird, but some with a little oddity now and again.

Marisa @The Daily Dosage said...

Yay! Another short collection I will just have to own. And I haven't read Shotgun so I need to get on that as well. Great review!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Oh, yes, I think you'll like this set! He's a fantastic writer, I'll buy anything he writes from here on out without hesitation.

Rory O'Connor said...

Loved this one too! I'm so happy to see that you like it too. Despite how great I think Nickolas Butler is, he still seems to stay under the radar. I hope that changes!

And I love the covers too. I think it is a mark of a good book when the title is bigger than the author's name.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I was really pleasantly surprised how much I loved it. I agree Butler deserves to have a larger spotlight. I don't really understand why there's not more fuss; he's such a beautiful writer. I hadn't even thought about the title being larger, but you make a very good point, I'm going to keep my eyes peeled on that issue in the future.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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