Nickolas Butler

Nickolas Butler, the author of "Beneath the Bonfire," a collection of short stories. 

If nothing else, Nickolas Butler’s first collection of short stories, “Beneath the Bonfire,” offers great ideas to update the traditional book-signing party. Instead of a reading, have a “chainsaw party,” as the characters in one story do, where friends get together and cut down enough wood to last the winter.

Or gather on a frozen lake in early January, as people do in another of Butler's tales, to burn old Christmas trees in a giant bonfire, and then scuba dive beneath the surface of the lake to look upwards at the glow. “Directly beneath it, the fire was its own strange aurora, expanding and contrasting, all the colors of the rainbow, roaring silently, the ice under the fire buckling at times and splintering.” Beats bad coffee and store-bought cookies in the back of a bookstore, no?

Butler, author of the acclaimed novel “Shotgun Lovesongs,” is a Wisconsin author who takes his Midwestern settings and makes something almost mythic out of them, without losing sight of the flawed, hopeful characters who live there. “Bonfire” is a strong collection of stories, portraits of friends and lovers binding themselves together against the cold outside.

In that opening story, “The Chainsaw Soiree,” the protagonist brings his girlfriend to the “chainsaw party,” organized by his old friend Bear, who seems less human and more of a spirit animal. By the end of the party, he and Bear have exchanged partners. This idea is repeated somewhat in the title story, in which a woman reluctantly lets her PTSD-afflicted new lover take her to the bonfire, where the distance between them is only magnified in the light.

In some stories, Butler’s female protagonists are less fully realized than his male ones, seemingly there only to reflect the men’s better or darker selves back at them. But as the collection goes on, Butler displays an impressive range of characters and situations. “In Western Counties” is a story about an older female police officer with early Alzheimer’s who tries to help an abused young woman escape her tormentor.

In “Train People Move Slow,” the protagonist must nurse a broken heart after his alcoholic girlfriend abandons him and her two daughters for him to raise. In this story and others, the characters survive tragedy, adjust to changing circumstances and even find happiness in lives they never expected to be living.

That’s certainly true of the deceptively simple final story, “Apples,”which follows an older man, downsized from the job he had his whole adult life, suffering from diabetes and arthritis. The easy, even lazy take would be to make this story a working class tragedy, but instead Butler turns it into a moving ode to the simple pleasures of life, whether it’s the feel of his wife’s hands or the taste of an apple. Or a well-crafted short story.

Butler does in fact have a fresh idea for a book signing coming up, as the Wisconsin Book Festival and Brava are hosting a Fall Barn Soiree at Badger Farms, 1682 Cottage Grove Road in Deerfield, with a reading and Q&A from Butler, food and drink, live music, and pop-up boutique. 

Tickets to the event on Thursday are $20 to $30 through Please leave your chainsaws at home.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.