In Beneath the Bonfire, Nickolas Butler unmasks the “good people” of small-town America.
by Grant Cousineau
Nickolas Butler sees the world a little differently. Take, for instance, this moment from the eponymous story in his 2015 collection, Beneath the Bonfire. A girl named Kat is scuba diving under a frozen lake, looking up at a colossal bonfire made from dozens of dying Christmas trees:
“From here, it looks like something in outer space burning, a distant collection of stars, though she knew how wide and tall the fire was up there, on the ice. But directly beneath it, the fire was its own strange aurora, expanding and contrasting, all the colors of the rainbow, roaring silently, the ice under the fire buckling at times and splintering.”
It’s poetic. Cosmic. Breathtakingly beautiful.
As has become his trademark style, Butler has a deft eye for small-town America. In Beneath the Bonfire, he describes the rural Midwest as a “nowhere geography not easily photographed by passing airplanes or satellites.” Forests are riddled with widowmakers — dead trees caught in the crooks of others. It’s where priests place metal buckets under leaking church roofs. Drugs and sex run rampant, and everyone drives a pickup with a Husqvarna chainsaw in the back, their cabs fitted with bench seats they call their “favorite pews.”
But more than that, these stories are about small-town relationships among families, friends, brothers, and strangers. And with any worthwhile bond, there are always secrets to be kept. Nowhere is this more present than in “Sven & Lily,” where two men hide their tobacco habits and pool hall fights from their wives. They see these lies as necessary to keep up the illusion that they are “good people.”
“If you’re good people,” Butler writes of the tavern scene, “if you’re punching the juke and minding your business, people take care of you too, in a way that doesn’t really happen in the real world.”
This brotherhood-above-family idea comes up again and again, among a trio of childhood friends in “Morels” and across the highway patrol officers of “In Western Counties,” who refuse to break up a dog-fighting racket because they’re part of the illegal fraternity. Throughout Butler’s collection, there is a severe lack of comeuppance, which aligns with all the stories I’ve heard from baby boomers reflecting on the good old days of yesteryear.
But these bonds are a symptom of a greater threat of rural life: the ubiquity of mirages. Families are often fractured. Towns are haunted by undeniable lawlessness, and relationships are fragile. In “Leftovers,” a husband must accept the cold hard truth his marriage is over:
“Mason imagines a small-town telephone booth from which he calls her and waits for her voice. She answers, her voice like a very cold wind traveling through thousands of miles of telephone wire. Then she puts him on hold and he imagines her walking away forever, leaving him there, through all time, waiting for either a dial tone or a dead click. Neither of which ever come. He grows older in that telephone booth, so much older, until it becomes his glassy coffin.”
All these characters are stuck. Their mirages crumble under pressure, encapsulated best in my favorite story of his, “Train People Move Slow.” In it, Bruce’s girlfriend Sunny frequently disappears at night only to be returned home on the backseat of some new stranger’s motorcycle. Bruce desperately loves her, but he cannot deny that she’s falling away from him, haunting him “like a ghost.” But somehow, they both blame him. If only he stood up for himself, she wouldn’t be so unfaithful. Defeatedly, she tells Bruce, “I wish sometimes you’d tell me what to do.”
They both have a distorted view of who’s at fault, and what love ought to be. It’s as if Butler is saying, for all the beauty of the Midwest, too often things are not what they seem.
In that scene from earlier in “Beneath the Bonfire,” as Kat swims underneath the thick “translucent window” of ice, looking up into the underbelly of the bonfire, she goes on to say she also sees:
“A forest of teenage trees, doomed from the start and piled lovingly for this end. She realized that in the spring, when the ice thawed, their skeletons and ashes would sink to the bottom of the lake, a strange aquatic burial.”
The point Butler is making with such artistry and authority is that you can’t set fires without making ashes, not even out in the middle of nowhere.
Nickolas Butler will be at the Brown County Library Central Library Saturday, April 27, to talk about this book and others, including his new 2019 novel, Little Faith.