The Hearts of Men
I admit that I was initially drawn to Nickolas Butler’s new novel, THE HEARTS OF MEN, more for its setting than for its premise. It’s not the sort of book I ordinarily read. Steeped in male characters and masculine traditions (like the Boy Scouts), with few female characters, the novel would at first glance seem very far away from my own experience. But its setting --- largely in rural northern Wisconsin, a part of the country I’ve been to numerous times --- made me feel nostalgic, and I wondered what this sophomore novelist, who himself lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, would do with this landscape.
Butler treats the landscape with reverence and respect, it turns out. As I found myself waxing nostalgic for the deep woods and icy cold lakes about which he writes, I also found myself becoming, much to my own surprise, deeply immersed in the lives of the characters who populate this landscape --- characters who could not be more unlike myself.
"Butler’s novel is suffused with genuine affection for its characters --- despite, or perhaps because of, their admitted imperfections."
THE HEARTS OF MEN is written in roughly three large segments. The first, which takes place in 1962, centers on young Nelson Doughty. Smart and talented (he is well on his way to Eagle Scout status), but friendless and hampered by extreme preadolescent awkwardness, Nelson finds himself, during his most recent summer at Camp Chippewa, growing closer to the camp’s director than to any of his fellow campers. The only other Boy Scout who shows Nelson even the least bit of compassion is a slightly older boy from his hometown. Jonathan was the only one to attend Nelson’s birthday party back home, and here at camp, he protects the younger boy as much as he can, although the petty cruelties of his peers and the impending divorce of his parents may be more than Jonathan can defend.
In the second part, set in 1996, Jonathan and Nelson are now middle-aged. Jonathan has a teenage son of his own, Trevor, who is reluctant to go to camp, largely because he’s in the throes of his first romance. Nelson, who cast off the bullies and became a Vietnam War hero, is now the director at Camp Chippewa, and he finds himself acting as intermediary between Jonathan and Trevor as their journey to camp goes off the rails.
I don’t want to give too much away, but to make a long (and immensely enjoyable) story short, the third part takes place in the near future, during Nelson’s last Boy Scout camp summer before retirement. It concerns Trevor’s own teenage son and the boy’s mother, Rachel, who finds herself as the only woman at Camp Chippewa, which quickly goes from being a place of refuge to a hostile environment.
THE HEARTS OF MEN is broadly about a friendship that spans generations and circumstances and that, like all relationships, ebbs and flows, and waxes and wanes, over time. It’s also about loyalty, preparedness, innocence lost, and --- perhaps somewhat unexpectedly given the context --- varying (and changing) definitions of what it means to be a man. Butler’s novel is suffused with genuine affection for its characters --- despite, or perhaps because of, their admitted imperfections. It’s nearly impossible, as I myself discovered, to walk away from this book without also becoming invested not only in this beautiful isolated place but in the characters whose lives unfold beneath its canopy.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 17, 2017
The Hearts of Men
- Publication Date: March 7, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Ecco
- ISBN-10: 0062469681
- ISBN-13: 9780062469687