The Hearts of Men Nickolas Butler (2017)
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” This line from the 1930s pulp fiction radio drama The Shadow captures the theme of Nickolas Butler’s probing new novel.
The hero of The Hearts of Men is Nelson Doughty, his surname perhaps chosen by the author because it’s an archaic English word meaning “fearless” or “persistent.” We first meet Nelson in 1962 at a fictional Boy Scout campground, Camp Chippewa, in northern Wisconsin, where he is a nerdy, bespectacled thirteen year old who is constantly bullied by the other campers. He does, however, find a savior—the elderly scoutmaster who runs the camp—and also strikes up a somewhat tentative friendship with a popular, athletic older boy named Jonathan.
I cringed in horror at the cruelties Nelson endured as a teenager, but his adult life holds even further unhappinesses, in Vietnam as well as back at Camp Chippewa. I won’t spoil the plot, which unfolds over the ensuing 57 years, until the year 2019. By that year, the evil lurking in the hearts of men has intensified: “There seems an atmosphere everywhere these days in America, a malevolent vibration in the air, every citizen so quick to righteous rage, some tribal defensiveness, seeing the fault in each other's arguments, rather than some larger common field of compromise, if not agreement.” (278)
Novelist Butler unfurls the secrets of both men and women as Nelson, Jonathan, and their families seek the standards by which they’ll live out their lives. “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Will this Boy Scout Law serve the purpose? Or is there an Army code that one can follow? Organized religion doesn’t seem to have the answer, at least in Butler’s Wisconsin. Some of his characters have an innate sense of fairness and generosity, but many of them are seriously flawed. The men, in particular, struggle with how to define themselves as males in American society. Are you a real man if you hold your liquor, beat your kids, frequent strip clubs, and cheat on your wife?
Throughout the book, Butler tosses off similes that stop you in your tracks: “The beer is ever so cold and bright, like swallowing winter sunlight carrying a memory of summer wildflowers, resting hay.” (149) His descriptions of summer in northern Wisconsin, viewed from a car window, are perfect: “Fields and fields of waist-high Cargill corn and knee-high Pioneer soybeans, muddy barnyards of shit-splattered Guernseys and Holsteins, sun-bleached and woebegone trailer parks, falling-down barns begging for a splash of gasoline and a match, cemeteries ringed in browning arborvitae and chain-link fences, derelict stone silos, small to middling northern rivers, forests of maple and oak and red pine sliding by at fifty-five miles per hour.” (154) Similarly, I know exactly the kind of place that Butler’s characters are in when he places a scene in a supper club, a dining establishment peculiar to rural areas of the upper Midwest.
The choice of Camp Chippewa, mosquitoes and all, as a primary setting for this epic is inspired. When you’re camping in northern Wisconsin, you’re far away from the cares and distractions of city life, forced to confront elemental truths. At one point, the young Nelson comes out of the woods into a clearing, and this is what he sees: “A star sliced loose from its berth and went scuttling out into the void, turning and turning without ever a hope of gaining traction again. I am cut loose, he thinks. And, To hell with them all.” (95)