Thursday, January 26, 2017

Winter Institute Preview - Nickolas Butler triumphs in his upcoming second novel, "The Hearts of Men, but first, my own Boy Scout stories

As we head to Winter Institute in Minneapolis, I thought it would be a great time to write about a spring book we're excited about, The Hearts of Men, Nickolas Butler's follow-up to Shotgun Lovesongs. It's particularly appropriate as it takes place in a Boy Scout Camp not too far from the Twin Cities.

When folks talk to me about growing-up experiences, a lot of people are surprised that I did a stint in the Boy Scouts. But when you think about it, it's not surprising. My late father and I got along pretty well, but he was definitely worried about how I would turn out and tried to turn up the manly in me with a series of life experiences*. My free time was filled with physical activity, from bicycling to running to classes at the local YMCA. Yes, we're Jewish, but the YMHA (known outside the New York area as JCCs nowadays) didn't have a pool and he loved to swim.

But that didn't seem like it was enough. So he signed me up for the Boy Scout troop that met at my elementary school. I really should have still been in the Cub Scouts (well Webelos) but they wanted to save on uniform costs so we went to the local outfitter on Bell Boulevard and well, they skipped me. They say skipping can be bad for a kid because you're emotionally less mature than the kids around you and I would like to confirm that this is probably the case, based on my experiences. (Since I have no photos of that time, I must thank Clip Art Fest for the image).

This troop was relatively small and struggling a bit. According to the Boy Scout organization chart, we had less people than there were positions in the troop. It only lasted about a year - I got the feeling that our troop leader's son was having health problems and had to pull out. Being about 10, I wasn't filled in on the details.

My father thought that whatever Scouting experience I had wasn't enough, so he set out in search of a new troop. He found one from one of his pals at the YMCA, that met over in Douglaston. We lived in Bayside, or South Bayside, or as I refer to it now, Not Quite Bayside (or per the post office, Oakland Gardens).

For a kid, this was a bit of a haul (much longer than if we actually lived in Real Bayside), but my father was nonplussed and while I sometimes got rides, I generally walked the half hour or so to get there. By myself. At 11. In New York City. Yes, times have changed. It really wasn't a big deal for anybody, and it was of course my favorite part of the whole experience.

Alas, the troop was not my favorite part. A few of my fellow scouts could sense weakness and enjoyed initiating me, though most were perfectly nice. In the entire time I was in the troop, which was also about a year, I never left the initiation phase. I never went to Boy Scout Camp (my summers were already booked with another camp) but I did several camping trips, and it turns out that a lean-to (a permanent shelter with one side missing) is much colder than a tent. I am still surprised I did not get frostbite - my toes could not be felt.

I did enough badges to get beyond Tenderfoot, but I'm pretty sure I didn't rise past the next level. I don't remember getting a single merit badge, but I must have gotten some or I wouldn't have been promoted, or whatever you call it.

In the end, I don't really know what to make of my experience. I'd say it didn't do what it was supposed to do. But I still remember that a Boy Scout is "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent." What I did forget is this is the Scout Law, whereas I remembered it as the Scout Oath, which is something different, more akin to the Pledge of Allegiance. And you'll have to trust me that I did this from memory, though I notice that Scouts are not necessarily "honest."

So anyway, I thought I was pretty much done with those memories, only recalling the episodes when a story would come up about women in scouts, gay scouts, gay scoutmasters, or whatever was in the news. But then I read Nickolas Butler's new novel, The Hearts of Men, and it all came flooding back.

You know Butler (at right) from his first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, which sold particularly well in the Midwest, and particularly particularly well at Boswell, where we had a lot of reads and were helped by the Wisconsin setting. It's about four guys who knew each other in high school who wind up back in their small town outside Eau Claire for various reasons, after going their own way. There's a love triangle of course (there are only five plots) but that's not the reason it stands out - Butler triumphs at writing about guy friendships, which is sort of a rare thing.

So The Hearts of Men takes it to the next level. It starts with the bullied Nelson, who like me, is pushed into it by his dad and well, has trouble getting beyond the initiation phase, which I now realize is another way of saying "bullied." His protector (or perhaps manipulator) is Jonathan, an older kid who is definitely cool, and has trouble deciding whether to fit in or befriend the outcast (see any number of young adult novels). Unlike most YA novels, he winds up not exactly casting his lot one way or the other, and unlike me, Nelson winds up falling in love with Scouting and eventually running the campground. (It's all about finding the right mentor - that's why I'm a bookseller, my version of Scout Camp, only with lots more women and less handicraft.)

The story continues with Jonathan's son and grandson, and tackles any number of issues, many of which are in that Scout Law. At one point, one scout or another breaks all 12 of the rules of behavior. So what's a Scout leader to do when the traditions don't hold up?

Butler's story is not just about friendship, but about the bonds between parent and child too. I've been reading several books where the burdens of parents fall on the kids and their sons and daughters have to react to these shortcomings and figure out who they will be in the face of them. If your dad is loose with his marriage vows, do you copy this or try to be as different as you can be? If your dad abuses you, do you in turn mistreat your own kids, succeed at doing better, or avoid the question altogether?

And of course, it's hard not to avoid the issue of the future of the Boy Scouts altogether, and it's not just the questions of whether you let in women or queer people. It's about whether any kid is interested in orienteering when they have a GPS system on their phone, or if they care about stamp collecting when they've never mailed a letter. Can you be technology-less and bond with nature in contemporary society? I know that not just Scouts are asking these questions. The answers get tougher and tougher - can you even get a group of people to leave their phones at home and once they have them, is that the easy answer to every question?

And yes, a cell phone is pivotal in the story, and so Butler has no easy answers about this either.

It's tough following up a strong first novel but I think Butler does a great job and the early reviews are in agreement. Publishers Weekly wrote "Butler demonstrates enormous command over the material and sympathy for his flawed characters. This beautiful novel might be his best yet." And Kirkus writes: "He presents few strong women characters, but the exceptions suggest he has much to offer in that area. Butler's mostly unembellished prose delivers a well-paced, affecting read." May I just note that it's a novel about Boy Scouts, which might explain the lack of women? But maybe that's just me. And Rachel is amazing, so there's that. And I'm actually quite fond of Deanna. But why I am getting wound up in this critique? Sorry.

And Donna Bettencourt in Library Journal: "Fans of Butler's awarding-winning Shotgun Lovesongs will welcome this impressive work with an outstanding ensemble cast. Top of the class for Butler on this one."

The Hearts of Men comes out March 7. For booksellers, Butler will be at Book Expo, and for our customers, the event at Boswell is...March 7. Come out and celebrate. Last time we had pickled eggs. I think I'm going to have to come up with some classic Boy Scout food to serve. We don't have fireplace so I can't make s'mores. I'll get back to you on this. You can order a signed copy from us now.

*My father's quest to make me a real man didn't quite take. Sorry, Dad. Hey, we worked the whole thing out and he was an amazing father, not a Boy Scout but true to every one of the prescriptions of the Boy Scout Law, except maybe "obedient."

1 comment:

Laura Patten said...

Your review made me smile. It's so easy to get wrapped up in critiquing this book, isn't it? I did too. Thank you, Daniel.