cover image Beneath the Bonfire

Beneath the Bonfire

Nickolas Butler. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $23.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-250-03983-5

Though all 10 stories in Butler’s (Shotgun Lovesongs) new collection may be populated by restless, contemplative, and hardscrabble characters, it’s the sense of place (rural Wisconsin) and the natural world that’s grounding the events. In the unforgettable opener, “The Chainsaw Soiree,” a cherished recurring winter-solstice party ends up offering complicated betrayals and resentments among a group of friends and lovers. Trouble comes in a variety of forms for Butler’s characters: the stoner mushroom hunters in “Morels” must process a fatality and its damning consequences; a soft-hearted, newly laid-off diabetic and his adoring wife fret about the future in “Apples”; in the title story, a bonfire on a frozen lake sets the scene for two scuba divers with a complex, sex-addicted history of “feeding each other nothing but motion and sweat.” Some narratives have been gloriously expanded into fully molded works of art, while others are mere portraits, short yet no less poignant, such as “Rainwater,” in which a grandfather raises his grandson after his junkie mother disappears without a trace. Sensitive to the human condition, Butler continues to demonstrate his impressive command of atmosphere and humanity. (May)