Book Review: Beneath the Bonfire

By: Judy Levin

Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, his debut novel, was published just last year, in the spring of 2014. Just one year later, this book of short stories appeared. Clearly works in the making, Butler is adept at developing character and plot in the short story format. In fact, Shotgun Lovesongs appeared to be a collection of interrelated short stories with chapters written from the perspective of the 5 various main characters. With Henry as the center, his three close high school boyfriends, and Beth his now wife, they alternate chapters to tell about their lives now, and where they have been in the intervening years between high school and this reunion. They are re-united here, a dozen years past those high school days in the small town of Little Wing, WI. Gathered for the wedding of one of the group, they must traverse the distances grown between them and figure out how to be together as adults. If you have not yet read Shotgun Lovesongs, I highly recommend you pick that up before or after you read this new one by Butler.

Beneath the Bonfire is deeper and darker than “Shotgun” with as much complexity of issues and character as the novel. The darkness in fact may surprise some who so enjoyed the antics and near-farcical scenes of “Shotgun”. But beneath that surface was depth of character and hints at future problems and dilemmas facing each of the characters whose stories we exit while they are still young (early 30’s).

In one very brief story in Beneath the Bonfire, a grandfather faces the dilemma of how and what to tell his young grandson about the boy’s mother (his own daughter) who has dropped the boy at Grandpa’s house and may or may not be returning. In another, friends cover for their hometown buddy who drunk-drives into an Amish family’s horse and carriage killing the young boy. The final scene when the investigating policeman turns up will surprise you. The collection’s title story will literally chill you as winter party revelers saw a hole in the frozen lake and scuba dive below into the frozen depths. What drives the young woman to follow her boyfriend down the hole, trusting him to keep her safe and return her through the hole, detected only by the bonfire light shining through the ice, will send icy tingles of fear and cold through you as you read.  

I know many avid readers eschew short story collections, fearing they will not satisfy in delivering the attachment to characters and emotions found in novels. I offer this collection to demonstrate that a good writer can deliver what a reader wants in a short but intense story.

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JUDY LEVIN - Book Reviews

Judy Levin has been facilitating discussions with book lovers for nearly 35 years. With a teaching degree and an English major put to excellent use, Judy currently facilitates and moderates discussions for 30 groups including libraries, organizations and private groups. A life-long Chicago land girl, Judy is a daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother. Follow Judy on Twitter @JudyLevinBooks and Facebook and see what’s trending and newsworthy.