'Lovesongs' paints portrait of small-town Wisconsin

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, April 30, 2014

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

You'd graduate from high school and take three months to bike across the country with your best friends. Or build a house, start a business or any other harebrained plan your teenage minds thought up.

It would be a bonding experience. Friends forever.

In “Shotgun Lovesongs” by Nickolas Butler, it doesn't take long to learn that—sadly—plans and friendships are fragile things, often riddled with holes.

Leland Sutton never gave anybody a straight answer when asked about the title of his first album, “Shotgun Lovesongs.” The record was about suicide, a tribute to another band, a nod to heartbreak—Lee gave a different explanation every time. But that album was what made Lee famous and what took him away from the town of Little Wing, Wisconsin.

Lee was perhaps Little Wing's most famous son, but big-hearted Ronny Taylor was the town's first celebrity. Ronny had been a rodeo rider once, but alcohol had done him in. Few people knew that Lee paid most of Ronny's bills.

Kip Cunningham wasn't aware of that, but there were a lot of things Kip didn't know. He didn't quite fit in with his friends. The thing he did do well was make money.

Solid, dependable Henry Brown watched his friends' worlds widen, but he knew his home was in Little Wing. His wife, Beth, and his kids were his life—and so was his town. It was where his heart had been broken.

Four pages into “Shotgun Lovesongs,” I was smitten.

If you're of a certain age, you will be, too, because Butler wraps his story around the experiences of many small-town teens: pilfered pilsners consumed in a cornfield, secret hiding places you think no one knows about, hanging out with friends you've had since kindergarten.

Readers who grew up in small communities will know the characters Butler describes—or people very much like them—and that offers a sense of home on every page.

This is one of those books you step into but never want to leave. It's got a great keep-you-guessing plot, a satisfying cast and an easy touch to it.

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