Margo Christie, first-time author of the semi-autobiographical novel These Days: A Tale of Nostalgia on a Burlesque Strip, grew up performing on Baltimore’s once-famous “Block” before moving in 1999 to Denver, where she recently got married, and is now moving again, this time to Tampa. She reviews for Voice of Baltimore first-time novelist Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a thoughtful study in fiction somewhat reminiscent of the iconic You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe.
The book’s title, Shotgun Lovesongs, refers to the album that has brought fame and fortune to the lead character, who is modeled loosely on singer-songwriter Justin Vernon of the indie folk band Bon Iver, who Butler went to high school with — and also to the forced marriages in the story that resulted from the various characters’ premarital escapades.
Christie comes back frequently to Baltimore — the place she still calls “home” — where the some- times violent and disconcerting events of the past month led her to contemplate the deeper meaning of returning to one’s roots, in the context of Butler’s novel.
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A WRITER FROM CHARM CITY
FINDS PATHOS IN NEW NOVEL
SET IN RURAL WISCONSIN
Where they don’t always take you in
EVENTS OF PAST MONTH IN BALTIMORE
CAUSE LOCAL NOVELIST TO RECONNECT
WITH HOME SHE LEFT 16 YEARS AGO
Home is the place where,
when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
—Robert Frost | “The Death of the Hired Man”
By Margo Christie
I grew up in Baltimore.
A metropolis once known for steel, in the 1960s it was the sixth largest U.S. city. Today, at approximately 622,000 residents, it hangs in there at No. 26.
Little Wing, Wisconsin, the fictional setting of Nickolas Butler’s debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, is a farming town of about 1,000.
Its pastures and cornfields, dissected by forests, rivers and lakes, stand in stark contrast to the blocks upon blocks of Formstone row houses in Baltimore that provided the backdrop of my youth.
Still, I can fully relate to the love Butler’s characters feel for the place that shaped them.
Love of home is universal and ageless. Though Shotgun Lovesongs was released more than a year ago, recent events in Baltimore moved me to review it just this month.
Unless you’ve been in a cave or far abroad, you know what’s been happening in Baltimore. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man whose neck was broken while in police custody, turned violent. Stores were burned and looted, police cars smashed with bats and stomping feet.
Watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper prepare for a live telecast before Baltimore’s Penn Station with the seething throngs in the background, I remarked to my husband:
“Anderson Cooper, no less. Baltimore’s on the map, and it ain’t good!”
But let me make clear that this snappy observation was made from afar: I left Baltimore 16 years ago for Denver, then Denver this year for Tampa.
In my heart, I know Baltimore as a town of mostly hard-working people whose leaders made some damaging decisions. Still, I can’t see an image of her signature row houses – the well-kept blocks of homes with marble steps gleaming or the graffiti-tagged ones whose steps were long ago stolen or salvaged – without feeling the tug of the place I call home.
Such is the case for a group of childhood friends in Butler’s debut novel.
Shotgun Lovesongs opens with an introduction to Little Wing’s most famous citizen, Leland Sutton, a rock star – Really.
As “Corvus,” Leland (a/k/a Lee) is renowned for his peculiar brand of northern clime-inspired indie rock. He’s even won a Grammy. On the road, he’s hounded by adoring fans, lusted after by beautiful women who use him as a trophy.
But the road is no home, as Butler makes clear early on, in the voice of Lee’s lifelong friend, Henry Brown:
“He would call us some- times, the connection scratchy and echoing, a chorus of young women giggling in the background, his voice never sounding as happy as we expected it to.”
The book is narrated in first person by five friends in alternating chapters. But it is Henry and his wife Beth who narrate the longest and the greatest number of chapters.
They are the stalwarts of Little Wing; of the five, they are the ones who never really left. They make a living in the manner of their forebears, by milking cows and sowing corn into Henry’s ancestral acreage.
They’ve been friends since childhood, have dated since they were old enough to find the opposite sex attractive. They left Little Wing for a short period after college — Beth for a lousy job and lousier marriage prospects in a slightly larger town, Henry for a place so short-lived and nondescript that he never even reflects upon it.
Upon returning to Little Wing, they married and have been married ever since. They have two children; their home is never neat; they’re always strapped for money.
Still, in the view of friends like Lee, who’s made his mark in the larger world, their life is enviable.
“My life is good. Very Good,” Lee tells Beth upon returning home for the first time in years. “But I get lonely too. For people I can trust. People who don’t want anything from me. It, it changes you after a while, you know? And I don’t want it to change me. I want to be able to come back here and live here and just be who I am.”
It is Little Wing Lee repairs to when he’s sick of the road and groupies, his music and even himself. In Little Wing, his biggest fans are in fact his friends. They know the words to his songs, buy more of his albums than they need or can afford.
‘SONGS ABOUT OUR PLACE ON EARTH’
“He wrote songs about our place on earth,” says Henry; “the everywhere fields of corn, the third-growth forests, the humpbacked hills and grooved-out draws. The knife-sharp cold, the too-short days, the snow, the snow, the snow. His songs were our anthems – they were our bullhorns and microphones and jukebox poems.”
If Lee’s songs in any way resemble this symphony of words, used by the author to describe his own, obviously well-loved place on earth, I don’t wonder how the fictional Lee Sutton won a Grammy!
At this early point in the novel, it was easy to assume Butler’s ode was to a specific “place on earth”: the author’s; Butler hails from Northern Wisconsin. It is, but like all well-written novels, Shotgun Lovesongs is way more than that.
The praise Butler sings is for more than just place — it’s for the place called “home,” in all its varied meanings, even when home is a place you merely think you know.
After Lee graduated from high school, his parents quietly divorced. While he was out trying to make his mark, “touring the back-roads bars and bingo halls of the Midwest,” they sold his childhood home and went their separate ways, Dad to Arizona, Mom to Minnesota.
“And so they left me homeless,” says Lee. “Little Wing being the only place I really knew.”
Something irretrievable from his past is what Lee really yearns for, and it’s embodied in people like Henry and Beth. That’s what continually draws him back.
I can relate. When I return to Baltimore, I immediately head for the familiar: Fells Point, where, in my college years, I drank in old sailors’ bars ‘til they nudged me out the door; Highlandtown, a tight-knit, working-class neighborhood where I lived twice, in the 70s and then again in the 90s.
Oftentimes, I’m disappointed at the sight of a parking structure where once stood a beloved bar. Once, I lingered teary-eyed before the padlocked entrance to the strip joint where, as a teen and young adult, I worked.
I walked through this door every day for four solid years, I thought, and now I never again will.
In Little Wing, there’s a structure that evokes a similar reaction. It’s the town’s cornerstone, an old feed mill with six-story silos. Nowadays, the mill is infested with mice and partially flooded with standing water.
“[It] loomed over us, casting long shadows like a sundial for our days,” remembers Henry. “Early in our childhoods it had been a bustling place where corn was taken to be held for passing trains… by the late eighties it had fallen into disrepair.”
Everyone has memories of the mill, of its better days; everyone would love to see those days resurrected.
Enter Kip Cunningham, the fourth of the five friends.
Kip is a stockbroker. After nine years trading commodities in Chicago, he returns to Little Wing a success, his Chicago-born fiancée in tow. In a ceremony to dwarf all prior Little Wing weddings, they marry in an old barn that Kip has renovated just for the occasion.
Kip’s old friends mostly find him pretentious. He’s described by Henry as speaking to townsfolk “out the sides of his mouth, his eyes still trained on the news” streaming from one of the four plasma TVs he’s installed in the mill, which he has also renovated.
‘A BLUETOOTH LODGED IN HIS EAR’
When he’s seen driving around town, it’s with “a Bluetooth lodged in his ear, his mouth working as if he were still out on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange.”
Still, Henry reminds us, “We respected him just the same. He kept a Farmers’ Almanac in his back pocket, understood our obsession with rain. Had he not gone away, he might have been a prodigious farmer himself.
“The Almanac, he once told me, was almost entirely obsolete, but he liked to carry it around. ‘Nostalgia,’ he explained.”
Nostalgia dictates Kip’s friends’ devotion to him. Lee, who, of the five, has the most contempt for Kip, has even agreed to sing at his wedding.
“I came back – I don’t know – to support him. Old times’ sake and all,” says Lee.
And even for all his fancy new gadgetry, nostalgia is what drives Kip. He’s obsessed with making something out of the mill. While most of his friends can only guess at the amounts of money he throws into it, in truth he’s in up to his ears, and even the mill’s popular new coffee shop is not enough to save him.
Though Little Wingers patronize it, on coffee their loyalties are split: Up the street is the greasy, aged Coffee Cup Café, where the coffee is stale and the service, languid and snarky. It’s owned by Little Wing residents who, unlike Kip and Lee, didn’t jump ship when farming got downgraded to laboring on borrowed time and half the town got boarded up.
LITTLE WING’S FIRST CELEBRITY
Rounding out the group is Ronny Taylor. He jumped ship long ago, dropping out of high school to ride the rodeo circuit.
Technically, Ronny was Little Wing’s first celebrity. He’s traveled from Butte to Baton Rouge; Laramie to Las Cruces, making his name atop bucking bulls and broncos. Now he’s back in Little Wing, a prisoner of sorts — he’d love to leave but can’t; whenever he tries, he’s lassoed back by some well-meaning Little Winger who, even Ronny admits, has his best interests at heart.
Ronny’s the town casualty. In an accident involving too much alcohol, his head met the sidewalk outside Little Wing’s VFW Hall one night long ago. If he drifts more than a mile from what he knows – his apartment; downtown Little Wing – he becomes hopelessly confused.
In a sense, Ronny is Butler’s metaphor for what happens when, restless and ungrateful, we drift too far from what we know, and look elsewhere for what we already have at home.
This is true, too, of all of the five except Henry, the only one who seems not to suffer nostalgia. When Henry thinks back, he exalts the farming life his parents gave him, in the same breath he uses to boast about how he’s improved upon it:
“[My father] and my mother milked about fifty Guernseys and Jerseys – a fairly sizable herd for that time,” he says, adding: “I’ve more than doubled the herd and right now, it’s all that I can do to keep up, even with Beth’s help. But it’s fair to say that he worked harder than I do and I remember that, too… this was before all the new machinery.”
In contrast, here’s Kip on why he returned to Little Wing, despite the fact he had everything he needed in Chicago:
“I suppose it all comes back to those nights and mornings [atop the crumbling silos with his friends]… feeling like we were apart from everything we’d ever known and maybe better than the place that made us. And yet, at the same time, in love with it all. In love with being small-town kings, standing up on those bankrupt towers… looking for something – maybe happiness, maybe love, maybe fame.”
Looking for fame, looking for love, looking for happiness. Despite the animosity that exists between Kip and Lee, it’s striking how much they resemble each other.
Lee found fame but not happiness or love. Kip has love and his own sense of what it means to be famous, but he’s not happy. Ronny found fame, yet look where he landed: right back where he was, a shadow of his former self.
And Beth? Let me just say she sometimes wonders what life would have been like had she not married Henry; and the mere act of wondering is the pea beneath her stack of mattresses.
Throughout, Shotgun Lovesongs is sweetened with elegies such as those above, love songs if ever there were!
Perhaps this was Butler’s intention in not giving each of the friends a more unique voice: They are, essentially, five of a kind. Still, I found it disconcerting when, called away one night from reading in mid-chapter, I returned only to have to flip to the beginning of the chapter to rediscover whose point of view I was reading.
Next spring, I’ll return to Baltimore and immediately head for what I know is there: Great restaurants and pubs, though not necessarily the ones I’ve been to or those that shaped me; a lovable group of supportive writers and book-lovers; what’s left of friends and family.
Like Kip, who sees restaurants and pubs in an old feed mill, I see perhaps a black-owned pharmacy/specialty-foods store where once was a burning CVS.
A self-described “refugee from a broken home in which nostalgia played a major role,” Margo Christie landed on the adult entertainment strip known as Baltimore’s “World-Famous Block” in the late 1970s, as the teenage girlfriend of a charismatic older man, where she soaked up storied old-timers’ tales of the “good old days of burlesque” while dancing her way to a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland.
Her first novel, These Days, won second prize in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award competition in 2012 and was stamped “as original as it is addictive” by Publisher’s Weekly Independent Review. Christie is currently working on a second novel.
Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs was published in 2014 by St. Martin’s Press and is available at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.com.