The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler, review by Bruce Jacobs
Nickolas Butler struck gold by mining small-town Wisconsin life in his much-lauded first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. Wisely panning the same motherlode, The Hearts of Men takes place largely at Boy Scout Camp Chippewa in the state's heavily forested rural northwest--a setting that molds three generations of boys trying to become men. Rich in lore and adolescent anxiety, it reads like a story from the 100-year-old scouting magazine Boys' Life--except written by Chuck Palahniuk. This is a world of white Christian men who frequent supper clubs, knock back brandy shots and party in stripper bars. Butler shines in exploring the complex male relationships of fathers and sons, military comrades and drinking buddies--no sentimentality, just the way it is. As he describes one of these rural Wisconsin characters: "an impossibly good and decent man, flawed only in ways all grown men are--susceptible to the wiles of women, ever lonely, always sacrificing, forever vigilant of their child's future."
Told in four parts set in 1962, 1996, 2019 and 2022, The Hearts of Men tracks the evolution of the camp as the ways of men are transformed by war, technology and sexual mores. In 1962, the camp bugler Nelson is a nerdy, glasses-wearing reader who tents alone and steams his uniform before blowing morning reveille. "A lame impala on the Serengeti Plain," he is an easy target for bullying by his callous fellow scouts. It takes an in-country stint as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War to turn him into the Eagle Scout he longs to be. In 1996, one of Nelson's only scout "friends" brings his 16-year-old son, Trevor, to camp despite the boy's disdain for the hokey scouting code: "Being an Eagle Scout is more on a par with having served as drum major of your high school marching band, secretary of the student council." In 2019, after Trevor's death, his fragile widow, Rachel, insists their son Thomas go to camp, as his father did, to earn merit badges like orienteering, although she knows all the global orientation he needs is readily available on his cellphone. The only woman chaperone in camp, she endures the bigoted harassment of scout fathers, leading to abrupt violence, bravely subdued by Nelson, who is now camp director.
Like those who came before, Thomas grows from his camp experience--and Rachel emerges renewed as a single mom strong as any boy's dad. They leave camp shaken, and in 2022, Rachel buys an isolated cabin on her own, but adopts a pair of protective German shepherds, just in case. If there is an overriding lesson in The Hearts of Men, it might be found in the Boy Scout admonition, "Be prepared." There's no telling what life will throw your way.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.