How do you even start reviewing a collection of short stories/essays? Story by story? As a whole? Both? The Boring Index comes to the rescue!
Who wrote these? Nickolas Butler, who you know from Shotgun Lovesongs, the award winning novel. He was raised in Wisconsin, educated at Iowa’s Writing Workshop (among others) and now lives next to a buffalo farm.
How many stories do I need to read? 10 stories all about 20 to 40 pages. The first stories are mostly short and they get longer throughout the book.
What was the least boring story? I really liked a lot of these stories, but I think I’ll go with Sweet Light Crude as the least boring. It’s about an environmentalist kidnapping the CEO of an oil company and forcing him to drink a cup filled with oil before he lets him go. But the environmentalist is old and dying and the CEO turns out to be much more stubborn than he would have thought. It’s a rough story, they are painful in their inadequacies and in the end unlikely kind to each other. But the title story, In Western Counties and Train People Move Slow are also amazing, so it was hard to choose!
What was the most boring story? I would go with Rainwater. The story about a man and his grandson, waiting for his mother to return, which she might never do. It’s the shortest story and definitely not bad, but the ending left me hanging a bit. It ended too suddenly to give me actual closure on the story.
Short Story Boring Index: Definitely a great collection. Butler does the small town midwest story really well. It all just fits, from chainsaw parties to dog fighting and train hopping. Someone recently asked me what makes for a good short story collection and my answer was that the stories need to fit together, have the same voice, without being too similar. Beneath The Bonfire does exactly that. You recognize Butler’s voice in all of the stories and they are certainly similar, but every story brings something new. They’re variations of the same themes, love and learning to let go, but all come at the subject in such unique ways that no story feels the same. His writing is simple and to the point, but lovely at the same time. It feels rich even though he never muddies up what he’s trying to say. The only thing I had trouble with were his endings. Often I felt like I wanted the story to go on, like it hadn’t yet reached its conclusion, but there was nothing more for me to read. Either this is amazing, because it makes me want to read more about these people, or it just means I’m still having a hard time figuring out what makes a good ending. I had this problem more with the shorter stories that are at the front. They seemed to short for what Butler was trying to tell the reader. But then from Beneath the Bonfire on, he kept on hitting the right notes for me, ending the story when it felt right and taking more time to round it off. All in all, definitely a book to recommend to lovers of simple stories that have a big emotional scope.
Review Copy attained through Netgalley with special thanks to the publisher Pan Macmillan.