Book Review: 'Beneath the Bonfire'

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Nickolas Butler. Thomas Dunne, 256 pp. $23.99

Nickolas Butler is an interesting kind of writer, and he writes an interesting kind of book. Both "Shotgun Lovesongs," his debut novel from last year, and "Beneath the Bonfire," this latest short story collection, manage to be literary without being too high-brow or pretentious. They're the guy at the party who carries himself with an air of "much cooler than anyone else here," yet you still want to be his friend because he seems like such an affable person.

"Beneath the Bonfire" includes 10 stories, all seemingly in a small or moderately-sized town. In a way, this adds to the intimacy of the stories. Butler's writing doesn't concern itself with the busy life of an urban area -- his stories, like his settings, are intentional and slow-paced. There's an inherent nostalgia in them, like in "Chainsaw Soiree," when a man remembers the night of the last "chainsaw party" he attended with his friends, which was also a turning point with the woman who would become his wife.

The intimacy that begins with the setting carries through into the characters, as well. They're believable -- simple enough to be relatable, yet not too simple so as to seem like a caricature. Their relationships with each other are what really stand out in this book. In "Morels," for example, the relationship between Deere, Coffee and Rimes are what I would think of when I hear of three men who have been friends since high school. They might as well be brothers.

Butler seemingly came out of nowhere last year with "Shotgun Lovesongs." No one had really heard of him, yet he wrote one of the best books of the year. And he continues his success in writing with "Beneath the Bonfire." I wished many of these stories were longer, the characters and stories more fleshed out. I just wanted to keep reading what he was writing.

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