What does it really mean to be a good man? That’s the challenging question posed by Nickolas Butler (Shotgun Lovesongs) in The Hearts of Men, an earnest exploration of the best and worst of male behavior, set against the backdrop of that quintessential laboratory for shaping it: the Boy Scouts.
Beginning in 1962 and spanning 60 years, most of the action of Butler’s novel takes place at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout summer camp in Wisconsin’s north woods. In two generations, a world that emphasizes the value of knot-tying and compass reading gives way to the age of iPads and social media. Wilbur Whiteside is the autocratic Scoutmaster who leads the camp for decades until he’s succeeded by former camper Nelson Doughty, who is aware of the profound contrast between the generous and instructive Wilbur and his own abusive father.
When it comes to the Boy Scouts, Butler isn’t interested in exploring the controversy surrounding an organization one character dismisses as “a dogged fraternity of paramilitary Young Republicans desperately clinging to some nineteenth-century notion of goodness in a modern world,” but he does imply there’s an enduring benefit to its ethos. Several of the characters, including Wilbur and Nelson, fight in wars that range from World War I to Afghanistan, and whether their conduct is cowardly or heroic, Butler suggests that the experience profoundly shapes the way they live the rest of their lives. He’s perceptive enough to recognize that only a tiny minority of men will see combat, but that most will be tested in other ways that reveal character.
Novelist Jonathan Evison described Shotgun Lovesongs as a “good old-fashioned novel,” and that’s an equally fitting description of The Hearts of Men. Butler doesn’t make it hard to tell the admirable men from the ones who badly misbehave, but his role models aren’t lacking complexity or flaws. Writing without irony, in a style that brings to mind writers like Andre Dubus III and Tom Perrotta, Butler, who grew up and still lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, displays an intuitive feel for the values of his characters. He’s portrayed them with compassion in this kindhearted, affecting novel.