Beneath the Bonfire: Stories – Nickolas Butler
Fiction – Short Stories
Published May 5, 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books
This is my favorite Nickolas Butler yet. For those who read my Shotgun Lovesongs review my one tiff was that it felt like a ton of short stories shoved together. Separately they were all fantastic but it made for a long novel. Beneath the Bonfire is merely a collection of short stories that are all phenomenal and extremely heartfelt in their own unique way.
The majority of these stories take place around Wisconsin and Minnesota. While the protagonists are mostly men, there are women who are just as believable and flawed as the men. Together, the ten stories in this collection showcase a Northwoods landscape that is familiar to anyone who has traveled through the Midwest. All the stories are all against the same(ish) backdrop yet each story has a completely different heart. The collection begins with young couples, mostly outcasts and hippies, gathering at the annual chainsaw party inside an abandoned church. The title story, ‘Beneath the Bonfires,’ examines a relationship as a couple scuba dives under a frozen lake. ‘Train People Move Slow’ follows Bruce falling in love with the wild and alcoholic Sunny and her two girls. ‘Rainwater’ shows a grandfather raises his grandson after his junkie mother disappears without a trace.
I think it’s hard to review this because each story was so different and quiet but extremely powerful. So I’m just going to explain what story I liked best and which one I liked the least.
‘Train People Move Slow’ is the favorite for me. While Bruce is busy falling in love with Sunny he finds himself loving her girls as his own, even when he never planned to be a father. Without giving too much away, I loved getting a glimpse of Sunny from Bruce’s parents perspective, especially his dad. They knew Sunny was far from perfect, but they knew what their son saw in her and loved her for that. There could have been so much judgement from people in this story and instead flaws were accepted (in some regards they were tolerated when they shouldn’t have been). I did appreciate however that because it focused on the immediate actions and it was easy to understand the characters and empathize with everyone.
‘Apples’ was definitely my least favorite in the collection. It was good and I think part of the problem for why i didn’t like it as much was because it was the last one I read. As the collection progressed the stories just got stronger and more powerful and this didn’t leave the ending impression I was hoping for.
Overall, I loved every story for what they brought to the collection. Butler did in an excellent job of capturing the small town midwest without resorting to cliches of people thriving in the simple life. He showcases how no matter where you are, life is never simple because of people. All of the stories are so different yet fit together beautifully because of Butler’s voice. Each one brings something new and has different take on a universal theme. Everything about this collection hit the right note for me. It was an easy to pick up and put down over the holidays, yet, I never wanted to put it down. This is definitely book I recommend to anyone looking for a beautiful collection of short stories that still contain a big emotional scope.
Probably one day when I’m feeling sentimental and nostalgic. It’s easy to just read one story that I really loved when I want too.
I cannot praise this book enough. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of short stories you will be able to see the development in these stories which made it all worth it.