I am not the best Midwesterner. Well, maybe just not appreciative of my heartland home. Living in landlocked Illinois my entire life, I do more complaining than praising. We have no mountains. No blue-green oceanfronts. The winters are pretty for two seconds after a first snowfall and the winds are unbearable. The weather is bi-polar for every season if there are four seasons. And that’s just the weather. I can go on and on. But after reading the ten stories in Beneath the Bonfire, I was proud to be a Midwesterner. We have stories. Amazing stories. Real, working people, living out their lives in the best possible way. And the way that Butler used the scenery as one of the characters in each story, made me appreciate my surroundings a little bit more.
“The pyramids of burning leaves smoldered into the night, even with the rain, and inside our house and on our clothes the smoke clung like gray cologne, and it was easy to know it was November.”
This one takes me back to those childhood years spent entirely outside from morning until dusk:
“They had all grown up in those unglaciated hills; that part of the world left intact by the last glaciers that steamrolled the surrounding lands, leaving it utterly flat. The Driftless Area, like a postcard of what had been. It was a place on earth unlike anywhere else, and as children they had merely used it as a playground, a place to swim or hunt or build their secret forts. They built faulty rafts to float the rivers and streams and stalked the forest creatures to test their own stealth. As children they had run together like their own small clan, learning the caves, coulees, draws, hollows, and springs bubbling up out of the planet like a good wound, giving up the coldest, sweetest water.”
When was the last time you read a short story collection where every story was solid? Right, me neither. (Actually I have a few I can think of but you know what I mean). All ten of these stories grab you right away and don’t let go until the last word. Something about how Butler weaves his words so perfectly and the characters, mostly unlikable, are believable. As a reader, I could picture these characters living in my neighborhood or have run into them on occasion.
There are couples beginning and ending relationships, dealing with cheating, alcoholism, domestic abuse, PTSD, or just growing apart. There are parents of all kinds struggling to make the best choices for the children in their lives. Friendships, new and ancient, are put to the test. And one story a little more than halfway through will have you holding your breath between an oil CEO and an Ecoterrorist. Each story is unexpected and unapologetic.
I haven’t read his first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, but after this collection I most definitely will.
Beneath the Bonfire: Stories by Nickolas Butler is 256 pages and was released in May 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books. I picked up a copy from the library and you can check WorldCat to see if one is available near you. Or if you are like me, this one will become a permanent copy for the bookshelves.