Thursday, August 5, 2021

Godspeed, by Nickolas Butler: Uncommon Affection for Character

At first blush, the plot of Nickolas Butler's new novel Godspeed may not sound like the stuff literary dreams are made of: Three dudes are hired by a rich lady to build a house on an impossibly tight deadline in the mountains of Wyoming. But in the hands of a storyteller as high caliber as Butler, it works!  

One reason it works is that there is a fair amount of mystery here: Why the tight deadline? Why that remote location? What's the deal with the woman Gretchen who hires them? Will they finish in time?

Secondly, these characters, as is often the case in Butler novels, are vastly underrepresented in fiction. So they're fascinating. Name another novel about construction workers. I'll wait. Sure, it's a risky choice. But because Butler is so good at writing characters, we're happily along for this ride to find out how it turns out for these fellas.

If you’re a Butler fan — and I’m huge one — you’ll immediately notice Godspeed is his first novel not set in Wisconsin. It's also his first novel that, if you're into genre-ing things, could be considered a mystery or a thriller.

Still, Godspeed is easily identifiable as a Butler novel for two reasons. First, even though his characters here are deeply flawed, he still displays an uncommon affection for them. That's a quality you don't find in too many writers, and it's one of the main reasons I love his books, this one included. Secondly, there's a tension here between the haves (Gretchen, and the rich tourists of Jackson Hole) and the have-nots (these three dudes). The three buddies who moved out to Wyoming from Utah and started a construction business recognize the risk of undertaking this project, sure. But they also see it as their golden ticket: Just a few months of hell and all our dreams can come true...assuming nothing goes wrong. And again, because we don't see these guys on the page too often, we're not really sure what exactly they're going to do. And that builds a massive amount of narrative tension and intrigue. 

But of course things go wrong. The question becomes, what are these guys really willing to do, what will they compromise, and will their friendship survive? Another Butler knack is for rendering male friendships — and he nails it again here with these three guys. The highs, the lows, the loyalty, the dick jokes.

If I still haven't convinced you to give this a try, hey, how about that cover art?! Pretty, pretty good. So but if you're a fan of the underdog, if you like seeing salt-of-the-earth people represented in fiction, and if you enjoy top-tier storytelling, this is a perfect novel for you. 

1 comment:

  1. This was the first piece of his work that I’ve read. I definitely struggled with the darkness but I do appreciate how the book made me think about greed and the plight of the American worker.