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The Hearts of Men

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Camp Chippewa, 1962. Nelson Doughty, age thirteen, social outcast and overachiever, is the Bugler, sounding the reveille proudly each morning. Yet this particular summer marks the beginning of an uncertain and tenuous friendship with a popular boy named Jonathan.

Over the years, Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. And when something unthinkable happens at a camp get-together with Nelson as Scoutmaster and Jonathan’s teenage grandson and daughter-in-law as campers, the aftermath demonstrates the depths—and the limits—of Nelson’s selflessness and bravery.

The Hearts of Men is a sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity, the challenges and rewards of lifelong friendships, the bounds of morality—and redemption.

400 pages, ebook

First published March 7, 2017

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About the author

Nickolas Butler

10 books916 followers
Nickolas Butler is the author of the novel "Shotgun Lovesongs" and a collection of short stories entitled, "Beneath the Bonfire".

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he was educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. His work has appeared in: Ploughshares, The Christian Science Monitor, The Kenyon Review Online, Narrative, The Progressive, and many other publications.

Along the way he has worked as: a meatpacker, a Burger King maintenance man, a liquor store clerk, a coffee roaster, an office manager, an author escort, an inn-keeper (twice), and several other odd vocations.

He presently lives on 16 acres of land in rural Wisconsin adjacent to a buffalo farm. He is married with two children.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 696 reviews
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,481 reviews29.4k followers
March 11, 2017
More than 4 stars, maybe 4.25?

At the risk of sounding like a total stalker, I would follow Nickolas Butler nearly to the ends of the earth in order to read his writing. I devoured his debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs (see my original review), while on a not-particularly long plane ride, and was equally infatuated with his story collection, Beneath the Bonfire (see my original review). Butler's books made my lists of the best books I read in 2014 and my favorite books of 2015, respectively.

While his newest book, The Hearts of Men didn't slay me quite as much as his first two books, there was still so much to savor, so much to feel, and so much of Butler's storytelling and use of language to be dazzled by. The book opens in 1962, at Camp Chippewa, a scout camp in Wisconsin. Thirteen-year-old Nelson Doughty is a consummate scout, one who probably has higher-level skills than any of his fellow campers, perhaps even his counselors. But while his achievement of 27 merit badges to date should be impressive, it doesn't give him the social acceptance he craves. Nothing does, really—even his talent with the bugle, which allows him the opportunity to play reveille each morning, has earned him the nickname "Bugler," and it's not meant in a flattering way.

"Nelson has no friends. Not just here, at Camp Chippewa, but also back home in Eau Claire, in his neighborhood, or at school. He understands that this is somehow linked to his sash full of merit badges...possibly, his unpopularity is linked as well to his eyeglasses, though it might just as easily be his inability to dribble a basketball or throw a spiral, or, worse yet, the nearly reflexive way his arm shoots into the classroom air to volunteer an answer."

While Nelson is a loner, if there is anyone he can consider even an acquaintance, it's Jonathan Quick, a fellow scout two years his senior. Jonathan can do everything right and is socially adept, but the two boys strike up an unsteady, slightly one-sided friendship. That summer, Nelson begins to understand the concepts of loyalty, bravery, trust, and what it means to be a good man. He has to make some difficult choices, choices which don't endear him to many, including his father, but he understands the steps he takes.

The second section of the book takes place 34 years later. Nelson, bearing physical and emotional trauma from his time in Vietnam, is now the scoutmaster at Camp Chippewa, and in the evening before camp begins, he gets together with Jonathan and his teenage son, Trevor, who has taken to scouting as well as Nelson did all those years ago. That evening, it is Trevor who learns what it means to be a good man, and understands just what kind of a man his father is, despite all of the stories he has heard from Nelson over the years about what a friend Jonathan was to him when they were younger.

It is the third and final section of the book, 23 years later, which packs the strongest emotional punch, and yet is also the most frustrating. Nelson is in his final summer as scoutmaster before retirement, and Jonathan's grandson, Thomas, and his daughter-in-law attend camp for another summer week. But the dynamics of a scout camp are lost on the youth of this generation, and the characteristics of manhood are lost on their fathers as well. When a troubling incident occurs at camp, Nelson once again demonstrates the simple act of bravery.

The Hearts of Men raises some interesting questions about manhood, bravery, loyalty, and what it means to be "a good man." At the same time, it looks with a critical eye at both the weaknesses and the strengths of men, and how they all too often don't realize the consequences of their actions. This is a book about fathers and sons, but also mothers and sons, and how some relationships—both platonic and romantic—can change us forever.

I love the way Butler writes. He imbues so many of his characters with complexity, emotion, and flaws. I just didn't understand the point of introducing the melodrama in the third section of the book—it really undercut the book's power, especially in a section where there was so much raw emotion. I think I get what he was trying to say, but I could have done without it, and for the most part, the story would have resonated as much, if not more.

While imperfect, The Hearts of Men is still a masterfully written, powerful, beautiful book, and another example of Butler's exceptional storytelling talent. I remain an enormous fan of his, and will now begin my vigil for his next book. (Sorry, Nickolas, to put added pressure on you; I'm just impatient and I'm a fast reader.)

See all of my reviews at http://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blo....
Profile Image for Donna.
541 reviews182 followers
April 4, 2017
This book started off strong, but section by section, it grew weaker and weaker until it ended on a disappointing note. I really hate when that happens since I had such high hopes for this book at the beginning with its sympathetic main character, Nelson Doughty.

The story began in Wisconsin in 1962 when Nelson was 13. He was a bright and sensitive boy. He was also an overachiever and an outcast, lonely, but hopeful of gaining a friend. And he seemed to have found one in Jonathan, an older and popular boy, both at home and at camp, though Nelson had his doubts about him. And being the bugler at Camp Chippewa didn't gain Nelson any more friends when he was praised for his talent by the aged camp director who took him under his wing. This was more than Nelson could expect from his neglectful and bullying father who wished for a more rough and tumble kind of boy than a son who hid behind his mother's skirts or clung to them.

I'm sure you've read about characters like Nelson in other books, but the author did a wonderful job in this one when developing Nelson into an individual who could break your heart, while bringing something fresh to the page, especially when Nelson was forced to make a series of moral decisions that summer at camp. Those decisions and their legacy echoed down through the years, affecting not only himself and others he knew, but two future generations of those he was closest to.

At its heart, this book, told in three parts, was about choices that led people down paths that either diverged from the ones they were on or kept them on the straight and narrow.

Heroes don't calculate or calibrate. They do what is right.

Sometimes I think you get mixed up in something, and it's like stepping into a river. The current takes you and the next thing you know, you're swimming...

This book was also about generations of sons rebelling against their fathers, whether their fathers were less than stellar or were too accomplished for them to compete with. It showed a pattern of three generations of boys abandoned by fathers or orphaned from them, and left to their mothers or left to run from them. It was also about living by a code, standing up and being righteous, or tossing that code out the window.

So this book did have its strengths. The writing was wonderful, and all the characters, when they were younger and on the brink of coming of age, were rewarding to read about. But in the subsequent sections when the boys had become men, they lost their depth and sparkle, and they ended up like hollowed out shells that could only hold the dreams of their boyhood for so long. Which brings me to the ending, the third section that starred the only interesting adult to me, the one strong female character whom the author chose to use in such a disappointing way to draw this book to an end. It felt as if in this male dominated story, the author couldn't seem to allow a female to shine too brightly in it for too long. I thought that was a damn shame.

So three stars for what started as an interesting generational coming of age story and ended as a heavy handed morality tale with some great young characters who grew up to be mediocre as adults.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews542 followers
April 22, 2018
In a novel stacked tall with men and boys in hiking boots and uniforms, unexpectedly, the one sentence that riveted me was “Her whole life, this boy.” I wept.

Please be cautious reading other reviews in any detail. You will find no book report here, as a man-friend of mine calls them, because there are secrets and stunners in this story that deserve to be unearthed by you. That right of discovery is yours. This is your adventure.

At first blush, I figured this might be a coming-of-age tale set in a Boy Scout camp and with the usual suspect: a bespectacled young fella who is good to his core but is unpopular and bullied. What we find instead is a series of lives that intersect. They are linked to one another by love and bring us an examination of what it means to be a good man - or a good woman. This ensemble of people is tied together by scouting.

The skills and goals of the program trickle in and out of the various characters' worlds - I'm talking values here, not the ability to build an emergency shelter or a survival fire in the snow. It is the well-worn set of values that young men aspire to that really saturate the tale.

Forgive me this, but a Scout is:

Trustworthy, Loyal,Helpful,
Friendly, Courteous, Kind,
Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty,
Brave, Clean, and Reverent.

I was pleased to find that the men and women here have good and bad in them - cartoonish clichés totally kill a story for me. Just when the reader is ready to gauge someone, a small pebble lodges itself into the insole of our judgement. Similarly, before we readers judge scouting as some fossilized old program only open to white, conservative, straight Christian boys, the author strikes the first blow at that reputation.

There is a timelessness to the teaching of values but also to human fallibility - we see that here. Because earlier sections are set decades ago, we spy certain men behaving badly, and as accurate for many women and kids impacted by that behavior in days past, it is them that we see take it on the chin. This is American Realism in style. The story begins with a veteran of WWI, the camp's beloved old scoutmaster who recalls his days at war. The last section of the book is set in 2019, but we readers have short deployments in Viet Nam and Afghanistan as well. Boys in uniform, men in uniform.

As mom to a 15 year old boy who just joined scouting a few years ago, I entirely related to one of the women who is part of this beautiful tale. We want our little boys to learn from other adults that being respectful is important. That honoring all people and keeping our world clean is part of who we should be. We want trustworthy mentors to help keep our children true to themselves and kind to others - to stand up for what is moral and right.

If you are a parent, this story will resound with you for I know you want your children to be at peace with themselves as adults. If you have history with scouting, read this. If you are a woman who loves hiking or canoeing or kayaking or watching wild animals - a woman who might have loved to sit around a campfire as a girl - and who wants her own daughter to be able to do so, read this.

Without revealing the secrets of the story, it is hard for me to put my reaction into words. Suffice it to say that I love the out of doors, courage, and above all and anything else, my son. My whole life, this boy. Five stars. Favorites shelf.
Profile Image for Katie.
699 reviews8 followers
May 19, 2017
Nope. Nope. Nope nope nope.

Men: Stop. Using. Rape. As. A. Plot. Device.

I don't mind stories about men. Stories about Straight White Men though are in a different realm. I'm not saying that all fiction revolving around Straight White Men is bad. Some of it can be good! But I had some other issues with this novel, especially its treatment of women as objects to be heroically saved or used as a sad plot device to give the men in this book personalities.

Nelson's mother: a woman who Nelson is supposed to save but can't.
The Stripper/Jonathan's Girlfriend: Women whose purpose is to teach Trevor empathy and subjective nature of morality.
Brittany: a woman who needs Trevor to save her and by doing so, makes himself a more interesting person.

And then there's Rachel. For the first two thirds of the novel I guess I just accepted that women wouldn't be a part of this novel in any significant way. A novel can still be okay even taking that into account as a flaw. But the moment that Nickolas Butler planted the fear of rape, I was emotionally done with this book.

Men: Stop. Using. Rape. As. A. Plot. Device. It bears repeating. It's abusive to the readers of the book and disrespectful of the characters, in my opinion. Men seem to find sexual violence against women a great way to show all sorts of things: Fortitude, defenselessness, fear. Even worse, this rape has no ties to the theme of this novel, but it haunts the reader from the beginning of Rachel's narrative. As soon as she gets to camp, you know where the story is going. The fact that it happens in the last 8% of the novel is reprehensible. It happens to her, and is brushed off, the aftermath is not dealt with at all, and it's brushed aside for Nelson's funeral.

It all felt like a giant letdown to me as a woman and as a reader. But mostly, it made me angry. OBVIOUSLY it made me angry, look at the length of this review. This is a rant dude. This novel has reduced me to rant status.
Profile Image for Ron.
380 reviews86 followers
January 23, 2018
”The Bugler needs no alarm.”
Nelson is the Bugler in that sentence, a thirteen-year-old Boy Scout who does not fail to rise before the sun. It is his duty at Camp Chippewa to blow the brass horn that will start the day. Doing so will win him no friends, this young boy with a sash full of badges, and a heart with a code of ethics. As much as he desires to join others, he is set apart by those things. Jonathan is the only other boy, two years his senior, a popular jock, who would take the time to address him, on occasion. But something is struck here between these two boys that will soon become men that will tenuously tie them together over the span of their lives.

I wasn't sure how to feel about Nelson, his determination to do things in his own way by this unexplained morality, because as much as he needed others, he did not need their approval to exist. But with a sudden plot jump by a generation, I came to understand and adore Nelson for the person he was and would be. To the point, I also came to love much of this book and its characters for the way it spanned generations. That can be a tricky thing for an author to accomplish without losing the reader, but Butler did it so well, by linking the relationships of the past, and creating new story at the same time. I thought Nelson would be the central link to tie it together. On the periphery, he was, but deeper than that, it was the bonds we form in life that became the link for me: Father-son, Mother-son, Husband-wife, Friend-to-friend.

So much of this book was a 5 star read. I could up my rating and feel good about it. I just think one or two directions taken here changed the dynamic of an often moving, nostalgic and at times a very humorous story. But I can see why Butler did what he did. I think he is speaking about all those hearts of men. There are the those who are wholly honorable, and good: Nelson, Trevor. Those who fall somewhere in the middle, an still others who fail completely.

Finally, the author does not forget the mother in this story of boys and men. I think one eclipses even Nelson, and probably became my favorite person here.
”This human being she has parented largely alone-this organism-once so small he weighed less than a large watermelon. And how she carried him everywhere in those early years: to the grocery store, on hikes, around airports, to the farmers market, the library. He went everywhere, wrapped to her chest, his eyes staring up at her, or out at the world. How they were companions. Closer than spouses, closer than lovers, or friends. This little boy, falling asleep at her breast, petting her face, his fragile little fingers near her lips, her ears, clutching her hair. Her whole life, this boy.”
No doubt Butler created these characters come to life on these pages at least partly from his own memories and experiences.
Profile Image for Sam.
247 reviews
November 29, 2016
Yeah yeah, I know it's supposed to be critical of uber-masculinity and all that, but honestly I found it incredibly misogynistic and offputting.
Profile Image for Laura.
819 reviews240 followers
April 11, 2018
There's a lot of themes to this book and it was somewhat of an emotional roller coaster. It's one of the more masculine books I've ever read. I had thoughts of "what a kind and misunderstood kid/man" to "what an asshole, he calls himself a man". But I think for me I was hit with how influential we are as parents to our children. Things that were important and influential when I was a child are not even part of my child's life today. In a way how the author takes you through so many stages of life in this book, it kind of just broke my heart in places of things lost over time. The title of this book could not be more perfect. 5 stars and as my friend Kirk would say "a book that made me cry."
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,464 reviews9 followers
December 1, 2020
Butler has definitely become one of my favorite authors writing about small town Wisconsin locales and people that just feel familiar to me. Characters not unlike so many people I know.

A good deal of the action takes place in a summer camp for Boy Scouts, a couple of which are aiming for Eagle Scout. Nelson is camp bugler and favorite of the camp's owner. Unfortunately he is friendless and a target of one bully after another. His story starts out in 1962 when he is eleven years old. Then the story moves up to 1996 and finally 2019 where Nelson is less a part of the major plot but still very much in the story.

Even if Boy Scout camp doesn't float your boat, I think a variety of readers will find this another one for the Favorites shelf. Teen boys, troubled marriages, family, the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, single parenting, the Chicago Cubs, and when you write about Wisconsin you have to write about nature, the trees and summers on the lake, Supper Clubs, and drinking, a lot. I feel that this review has not properly conveyed how enthralled I was with this book or how deep it goes, so read some of the other 5 star reviews on Goodreads, then read this book.
Profile Image for Drew Perry.
Author 8 books29 followers
February 10, 2017
Full disclosure: I read and loved SHOTGUN LOVESONGS, Nick Butler's previous novel, and I read and loved his stories, BENEATH THE BONFIRE, too. The stories are searing little nesting dolls of beauty and calamity; SHOTGUN LOVESONGS is a kind of bravura tightrope act that somehow manages to edge up against melodrama without ever giving in to the saccharine. It's a full-on character-driven opera with a superstar indie rocker and his old-school high-school buddies at its core, and it doubles down and doubles again on this idea: what if this book forever sought the good in people, even as they engage in reckless, sometimes feckless behavior? What if we (always) looked for the humanity in (always) fallible characters?

THE HEARTS OF MEN takes the questions of SHOTGUN and chases them to darker corners, yes, but somehow, in the process, this book becomes even more hopeful, more thrilling -- it's ambitious as hell, nervy, risky, and it succeeds. It's the Great American Boy Scout novel, and if you ever either earned a merit badge or know someone who did, then yes, this will drop you fully back into the days of reveille and mile swims and orienteering. To pigeonhole it as a Scouting novel, though, is to say that CE Morgan's THE SPORT OF KINGS is a Kentucky novel. Butler uses Scouting, and Scout camp, and men and boys and the upper midwest and bars and supper clubs and backyard birthday parties and strip clubs and baseball and fire and adolescence and failed marriages and -- and hope and dogs and rain and rivers and Wisconsin -- he uses all these things the way anybody at the height of his or her craft might. He uses them as the stage against which to play gigantic questions of morality and mortality, consequence and consent.

I've been the boys and men in this novel, and I've feared the boys and men in this novel. I could go on forever here, but it comes to this: you fall into a Nick Butler novel. You live there. SHOTGUN LOVESONGS was immersive. THE HEARTS OF MEN is everything SHOTGUN was and then some: so much thornier, more complex, a novel that lives with you for days and weeks and months after you've read it. The language is crisp and musical and arresting; my copy is so dog-eared it's laughable. Here is a huge-hearted writer with another huge-hearted book -- this time big and brawling and historical and once again so, so good.
Profile Image for Megan Edwards.
338 reviews7 followers
March 14, 2017
I'm torn about this book. He's a talented writer, and I enjoyed the premise. But there was only one likable character. Are men really that terrible? Is the entire gender totally lacking in morals or self-discipline? Oh, and the worst father of the year award goes to Jonathan Quick, who corrupts his son just so he will no longer be able to judge him. The parents in this were all terrible. According to Butler, the hearts of men are conniving and craven and greedy. Too depressing for me. And the ending was ridiculous and unbelievable.
Profile Image for Olaf Gütte.
175 reviews69 followers
May 6, 2018
Tja, welche Figur war mir in diesem Roman sympathisch? Mit Abstrichen Nelson Doughty,
ansonsten nicht einer, der in dieser, von Männern geprägten, amerikanischen Welt die Frau als solche weder respektiert, noch achtet. Und wenn doch, dann erst viel zu spät, in der letzten senilen Phase
des Lebens.
Nickolas Butler ist hier hart an das Thema herangegangen und hat dies hervorragend, fast perfekt
Profile Image for Greg Zimmerman.
789 reviews172 followers
July 13, 2017
First appeared at http://www.thenewdorkreviewofbooks.co...

Nickolas Butler writes with more empathy and feeling for his characters — even those who act like jerks — than just about any novelist I've ever read. That was definitely true in Shotgun Lovesongs — one of my favorite books of the last five years. It's true in his terrific story collection, Beneath the Bonfire. And it's perhaps most true in his new novel, The Hearts of Men.

This is readily apparent in one of the opening scenes of this fantastic, heart-wrenching novel: Thirteen-year-old Nelson's parents throw him a birthday party, and he waits patiently for the boys in his Boy Scouts troop to arrive. But they never do. It's a long, excruciating day for poor Nelson. But finally, an older boy named Jonathan arrives, shoots some arrows with Nelson, and then having completed his obligation, takes his leave. It's a near-perfect way to open a novel: We immediately feel just gutted for poor, nerdy, friendless Nelson.

And then it gets worse: We follow Nelson to his beloved Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin. There, he's constantly picked on — the other boys taking perverse pleasure in pulling particularly mean pranks on him. And even more sadly, he doesn't get much support from his father, a typical emotionless 1960s fellow, who doesn't exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. His father seems more embarrassed by his son than protective of him. Jonathan, the older popular boy, who seems to be a good kid, is Nelson's only agent.

So we follow Nelson through various misadventures at scouting camp, and then we jump forward 30 years. In the second part, it's the mid-1990s, and we follow middle-aged Jonathan, who now has a teenage son of his own named Trevor. Jonathan is preparing to take Trevor to the Boy Scout camp, per tradition, even though Scouting isn't really en vogue anymore. Nelson is now the camp's director after a stint in Vietnam, and he and Jonathan have remained acquaintances through the years. Jonathan has kind of morphed from a good kid to a bad father and husband. But he's an affable fellow, so it's hard to dislike him. Throughout this part, we learn a new, more modern definition of manhood in a sort of "what not to do" way. Jonathan pesters his son, has an affair, and just generally does everything a good father and husband probably shouldn't.

Finally, the third part, takes place in 2019. This may be the best, and most harrowing, part. It's about yet another trip to the camp — this time with Trevor's son, Thomas. Only this time, Trevor's wife Rachel goes on the trip, which creates some consternation among the other fathers there. Nelson is still there, and he and Rachel become good friends. In this part, we find out what it means to be a truly despicable man. It's a hard section to read at times, but again, probably the best.

So on the whole, this three-part novel is about not just want it means to be a good man, but simply what it means to be a good person. Are you a good parent? A good friend? Are you a faithful spouse? Can you be a good person if you're not any one of those things? Butler seems to be wrestling with these questions as much as he asks his reader to. And that's why it's so apparent how much he cares about his characters — which of course, we do too, then.

I loved this book. Butler is a must-read writer for me now. And this novel is a sure sign that he's only getting better. Highly, highly recommended!
Profile Image for Adrian White.
Author 4 books125 followers
March 25, 2017
Oh dear! I think this book suffered from my too high an expectation - a little like George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. But while Lincoln in the Bardo is original and ambitious, The Hearts of Men is disappointingly pedestrian.

I had good reason to expect better: Shotgun Lovesongs was my favourite book of 2014 - by far - and Nickolas Butler's collection of short stories, Beneath the Bonfire, showed him to be a masterful writer with a firm grip on both human frailty and inner strength. The Hearts of Men would make a good long story in a similar collection because it has a single thing to say: it is possible to remain true to yourself in trying times. As it is, this is bloated out into a good-sized novel, with the three parts effectively telling the same story across three generations. The worst moment for me came when we were given the description of a potential workplace romantic interest for Rachel that was so full of cliché that I knew Butler has swiftly become that awful thing: a writer that no editor dare question. There are so many stock characters; there's one key character, Jonathan, who just doesn't register as a real, live, credible person who might actually do the things he does. There's the token 'fucked up by Vietnam' section. There's the ending I saw coming, even without the tell-tale blurb on the back of the book. It's formulaic; it's written to order; it's more Nicholas Sparks then Nickolas Butler. On one level, there's nothing wrong with all this; it's just so disappointing when you know what the author is capable of.

I see all those glowing reviews from the States, from people keen to be seen to be on the Nickolas Butler train. They should all know better, as should his publishers and editor. In a few years time, he'll recognise this as his difficult second album - his Radio Ethiopia coming after his Horses - and I'm sure he'll come back the stronger for all that.
Profile Image for Kirk Smith.
234 reviews75 followers
April 3, 2017
I can very much relate to anyone who achieved a few years of frozen adolescence. My perspective is of course not the same as the protagonist whose structure was that of an Eagle Scout working with a more absolute moral code.** This is the highlight book of the year for me. The book proved over and over the kind of self sufficiency that comes from training for any situation and for having a vast range of survival skills. This book has so many human elements, lots of heart, and makes one nostalgic for a simpler time. This is a fantastic book for understanding people that choose service to others, that believe in an honor code, that practice what they believe. I think of Owen Meany as a book that pleased a number of people. That one missed the mark for me, but this one truly relays to me what is meant by honor, service, duty. At its heart it is a coming of age story. So much more than that, it addresses subjects such as bullying, rape, service to country, failed love, new love, and abiding love. A great book to suggest for Men's book clubs, but also a book anyone would appreciate. It is adult and not for a younger crowd. This book is full of life and valuable lessons, a wonderful book!
Profile Image for Andy Weston.
2,384 reviews140 followers
March 20, 2017
This is a strange book, and looking back it, surprisingly readable as it first I had thought it would be predictable, and it certainly wasn't that.

Set in the Wisconsin backcountry, where the author lived for many years, the book tells of 3 generations of scouts at Camp Chippewa. Though the book starts in 1962, few books are set in the very near future, 2019 is the last of the generations.

Throughout the three generations of adolescent boys in the summer break earning their badges and 'being prepared' there is a sense of foreboding, a sniff that something bad is about to happen. Amidst the summer fun, is the backdrop of the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars. The two renowned and dedicated lifelong scout leaders have played important roles in those wars, and their lives have changed because of them, but they have returned to the innocence of scout camp. Supposed innocence.

A very different type of story therefore, and one that defies a genre tag. Ultimately rewarding, though at times I did wonder where it was going.

It's my first Butler, and I am intrigued, and will read more from him.
Profile Image for Michael Ferro.
Author 2 books211 followers
September 17, 2017
Nickolas Butler is in a field all his own. He's the meticulous, caring writer who all us grown men wish we knew when we were younger; someone guiding us on an ever-changing path into a more modern, evolved masculinity. At the core of THE HEARTS OF MEN is the Midwest, that glorious and underrepresented landscape in literature, and Butler exposes what truly makes the heartland the soul of our country: its people. The characters in this novel are our childhood friends, our best buddies, and the folks that we grew up side-by-side with who helped to shape us into the individuals we are as adults.

With tender detail and a warmth that is unmatched, Butler shows his readers that though tragedy may break our hearts and our will at times, it can also reinforce our foundations and steel our resolve. We may not have been to scout camp to learn these values firsthand as youngsters, but thank goodness Nickolas Butler takes us there and beyond with his unforgettable tale of summers at Camp Chippewa.

Young or old, male or female, Midwesterner or not, everyone can benefit from THE HEARTS OF MEN. This is a must-read in our modern American society.
Profile Image for M.L. Rio.
Author 2 books5,596 followers
March 21, 2017
Goodreads, I really need half-stars because this is a pretty firm 3.5. Anyway.

Butler has a tender and compelling voice, which is the reason this book works. The narrative is loose enough that it feels more like a collection of short stories about people who happen to know each other than a novel, but the consistency of the tone, tenor, and quality of prose holds it all together. Butler also has an excellent sense of time and place. Though I, obviously, was never a boy scout, I did attend the same summer camp for ten straight years and Camp Chippewa--Butler's woodland wonderland slightly gone to seed--is more than a little familiar and delightfully immersive. Only in the later chapters, set in 2019, does the sense of Great American Disenchantment begin to falter, because Butler falls back on the tiresome lamentation that technology is ruining everyone's appreciation of the simpler things in life. (Sigh. Teenagers like smartphones. We know. So do adults. They're convenient, not evil. Get over it.) However, he is also one of very few authors who manages to write a teenager's text messages without them feeling entirely contrived, so that does make all the hemming and hawing about "When-I-was-your-age" a little easier to swallow. Lastly, though it doesn't particularly bother me here because it's sort of implied by the title, it's worth noting that women are unapologetically sidelined. The ones who populate the story do so in the limited capacity of mothers or romantic partners to the titular men and don't seem to have their own lives or motivations beyond those roles. (And, this is a spoiler alert, but Butler's treatment of sexual assault perpetrated against one of the women in the book is perfunctory at best and seems, somehow, to still be about the men. The worst kind of irony.) All that being said, it is a good read with lovely prose that kept me consistently interested from start to finish.
Profile Image for Peg.
532 reviews
April 11, 2017
Didn't want it to end. Took me back to Wisconsin and I could smell the crisp air, pine trees, camp fires. A story to explain what makes a man a "good" man.

I loved Shotgun Love Songs and didn't splurge on buying this one as afraid of the second effort not measuring up. It measured up and surpassed.

Mr. Butler is now on my to buy list without questions asked.
Profile Image for Andy.
2,360 reviews185 followers
July 31, 2019
What a interesting summer camp story.

The Hearts of Men follows three generations of campers to Camp Chippewa. In the beginning, we follow Nelson Doughty. He's the camp bugler and somewhat of an outcast. Nelson loves the camp and admires the tough Scoutmaster. During the weeks of camp, Nelson befriends Jonathan, one of the popular boys. As the two grow up, grow apart through war, and re-acquaint themselves, we see how their friendship has changed. Nelson becomes entangled with Jonathan's family when his son Trevor and eventually Trevor's son, Thomas come to the camp with his mother, Rachel in tow.

This was such a fascinating book. I never really knew what it was about at any point, but I really enjoyed every minute of it. I found it so easy to relate to Nelson. He was an overachiever and had his own set of rules and morals that he always followed. I loved watching him grow older, take over the camp and help other boys become better men. Also Nelson as an old man and interfering with the wifi made me laugh so much.

We also get to follow Trevor, Jonathan's son. Trevor so clearly loves and admires Nelson. It wasn't surprising when Trevor followed Nelson's footsteps and also became a marine. I didn't know if I liked Thomas very much. This kid would not enjoy camp! He was always on his phone and I was like boyyyy go have fun in the creek! Maybe it's because I myself used to LOVE going to summer camp, but man he was wasting a great opportunity.

This story of Nelson, Jonathan, Trevor, Thomas & Rachel (Trevor's wife) is told through various perspectives and time periods. Nothing in this story is linear and it made for such a compelling read. I'd never know where the story would go next or who would show up. I really enjoyed the characters and seeing them go through life. None of the main characters were "bad" people by any means, but they all had differing outlooks on life.

The overarching themes of good and evil, family and fidelity, the rewards and challenges of lifelong friendship were so relatable. I enjoy this story so much and I really didn't think I would. There is also a feminist view to this story. While men can do awful things, women can too and the important part is whether they try to redeem themselves.
Profile Image for Alberto Delgado.
577 reviews106 followers
August 10, 2019
Después de leer su anterior novela no he tardado en leer esta y me confirma lo buen narrador que es. Esta es una historia mucho mas compleja que la de su anterior libro y aunque la construcción de personajes sigue siendo sobresaliente la propia estructura de la novela hace que algunas veces te quedes con ganas de que hubieran sido tres libros independientes y haber visto desarrollar la vida de todos los protagonista que van apareciendo en cada una de las tres partes de una forma mas completa. Creo que eso es lo que hace que en reseñas mas negativas que he leído la gente diga que les ha decepcionado y que les gustó mas Canciones de amor a quemarropa. Tal vez no sea un libro redondo de 5 estrellas pero a mi me ha emocionado con esta historia de supervivientes a lo largo de 60 años en la que creo que Butler quería sobre todo retratar el cambio de estilo de vida y valores que se ha dado en estados unidos y que realmente es universal al menos en los países del primer mundo. Deseando que se traduzca su recién publicada novela de este año para seguir disfrutando con las historias del medio oeste americano de este escritor.
Profile Image for Kim Deutschman.
130 reviews8 followers
April 19, 2017
As a former member of the Scouting family and the mother of an Eagle Scout, I really enjoyed this book. Having gone to several summer camps, much like the one depicted in the book, it brought back a lot of good memories (aside from encountering some misogynistic Scout leaderss, much as those depicted in the last part of the book).

My complaint with the book was in the last 35 pages. How Rachel could suddenly decide to trust/drink with the other fathers at camp, instead of trusting her instincts, just didn't make any sense for her character.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
1,204 reviews33 followers
December 4, 2017
Great coming-of-age book centered on boys. Men growing up, emulating their fathers (or not); men shaped by their experiences. It talks a lot about what men truly desire in their hearts. In its core is goodness, selfishness, forgiveness, carelesssness and many more.
Profile Image for Jarrett Neal.
Author 3 books65 followers
October 25, 2022
The road to manhood is long and arduous, and masculinity is a subject everyone should be invested in. The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler, a novel published in the months between Trump's inauguration and the explosion of the #MeToo movement, is, on the surface, precisely the book to address animated cultural debates surrounding manhood in these fraught social and political times. Butler’s goal with this book is laudable. What he set out to do, I think, is explore toxic masculinity inherited from one generation to the next. Nelson, as the novel’s main character, should be the locus of this exploration. The first third of the story is centered almost exclusively on him and the intense sorrow, abuse, and alienation he endures. Nelson wants to be liked and included so badly, and I defy anyone with a heart and mind not to overflow with sympathy for him.

Beginning in 1962, the cultural zenith of toxic manhood in America, Nelson, his father, Wilbur, and every other man in this portion of The Hearts of Men is made to suffer physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships owing to an ethos that severely restricts them. At its core, this book puts father-son relationships under a powerful microscope, where readers are forced to examine the reason profligate fathers punish and despise their dutiful sons. Yet even the fathers themselves are unable to explain why they abhor goodness, obedience, and sensitivity in their sons. It’s all quite aggravating but Butler, at least for a while, adroitly scrutinizes this dynamic. Unfortunately, he fails to deliver on the novel’s promise.

After presenting readers a controlled, evocative Part One, the rest of The Hearts of Men careens out of control, with plot points that don’t connect, situations that strain credulity, flat characters no one can connect with, and stagey dialogue so hollow it echoes. After Part One the novel devolves, gradually becoming less enjoyable, less credible, and less defensible with each page. Although Butler achieves striking verisimilitude in Part One, the other two thirds of the book feel shamelessly fraudulent. Questions abound: Why did Butler switch the focus from Nelson to Jonathan, and why is Jonathan given a lineage and not Nelson? How did Nelson and Jonathan maintain a close friendship over so many years? Why did Butler kill off Trevor? Why did Butler completely kneecap the entire thesis of the book and hand the final section over to Rachel, a woman, rather than letting Trevor live and giving it to him? The author just didn’t follow the map he set for himself.

Butler's struggles with this novel are abundant. He displays a sheer lack of respect for his characters, employing them to make grandiose statements about toxic masculinity and heaping relentless misery and scorn upon them before he recklessly discards them. He’s contemptuous of his characters, and that’s unpardonable for a writer, especially one with Butler’s pedigree. In the latter sections of the book the plot meanders, the characters become vapid and grotesque, and in the end I just don’t believe any of it. I don’t believe Nelson would have been a Vietnam vet. I don’t believe Jonathan would sabotage his son’s budding romance, nor do I understand why he would do it. I don’t believe Nelson and Jonathan kept in touch. And as for the final section of the book, which includes the rape of a single mother, the less said the better, only to say that I side with another reviewer who rails at Butler and other male writers who use rape as a throwaway plot point.

It's so frustrating to read a novel that has so much potential and see so clearly where the author erred and how they could have made it better. I’m not chiding Butler for not writing the book I would have written, but he obviously got caught in a maze here. After page 139 I kept asking myself why he wasn’t taking the story where it obviously needed to go, where there would have been more interest, higher stakes, and a much more realistic plot? Moreover, the novel’s near exclusion of any discussion of the ways feminism, race, queer rights, and changes within the U.S. labor force have altered masculinity through the years is yet another way Butler struggles with this book. I liked where The Hearts of Men was initially going but in the final analysis this book is like a train that jumped the track. The book’s journey is evident, but it never reaches its destination.
Profile Image for Randee.
815 reviews32 followers
July 6, 2017
I liked this story very much with a few reservations that are more of a personal choice, than any criticism of the writing or story. It is an interesting coming-of-age tale and I did not feel any impatience or boredom for even one page.

The first third or more of the story concentrates on a teenager, Nelson Daughty. Nelson is kind- hearted and an overachiever, but very, very naive. For whatever reasons, he cannot overcome (although he knows what makes him unappealing) what makes others bully him. Adversity in youth usually does one of two thing, toughens one up or damages someone to the point of suicide or a life haunted by the past. But, Nelson does make one friend, Jonathan, who eventually betrays him too. Nelson has a tough childhoodny ways and the author does not flinch from revealing the darkness in men's (boy's) hearts. I admit some of it was so brutal it made me squirm and feel uncomfortable. I applaud Mr. Butler for this in these politically correct times with snowflakes who don't want to hear anything that upsets them. Nickolas Butler does not soften to make more palatable; get ready for reality.

The next third of the book reveals that Nelson his joined the military and has done several tours of duty. He has seen and done things that no one should ever have to do, but I think it has wised him up more even as he holds tight to his personal codes. Oddly enough, he has remained friends with an adult Jonathan. Jonathan has had a very different life. He is the heir to a successful company, has married and now a son of his own, Trevor. For Jonathan's many faults, he does love Trevor. He tries to make Trevor more jaded and cynical for his own good. This does not make for a good father-son relationship. And, they all continue to go to summer camp.

The last third, we learn that Trevor has hung on to his values (in contrast to his father) and has married his childhood sweetheart and they have had a son. Trevor also joined the military and learned the brutality of the world. The son, also named Jonathan, and his mother are close. Everyone is still going to this same summer camp, which Nelson now runs 2 weeks of the year.

Things I like: It really is an excellent story and well written. It does not flinch from being a 'looking through the glass darkly' type of novel. All people are both good and bad in different ways, it depends on degrees and the ability to control one's darker impulses. Trying to make the right choices, hold on to your values despite what others may think and act like a civilized person instead of a barbarian.

Things I disliked: We get to know Nelson well as a character study. Later, as the years go by, we hear less about Nelson as other characters step up into the spotlight. It feels herky-jerky in this respect. I would have preferred the story stay either focused on Nelson or getting to know the other characters as well as we know Nelson. But, these are personal, not professional, preferences.

The story stands out as a coming-of-age novel and a refreshing bit of reality as to how people act and think, both good and bad. People that make the right moral choices because they know they are the right ones despite the consequences. People that make the choices with the best intentions but are wrong and can only succeed if they fail. The book is a homage to thinking for yourself and making a choice based on what you have personality experienced and what you hope to achieve.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes the type of story that has a trajectory over many decades and doesn't expect people or characters to be all white or black; but shades of gray that we all are.
Profile Image for Wendy Bunnell.
1,248 reviews30 followers
May 22, 2017
This book has an incredible mix of small scale and grand scale, as we're focusing largely on members of two families living mainly in rural Wisconsin, but over the course of 70 years, and some of these family members had some remote travel which changed their narratives. It's about a boy scout camp, and two boys who became friends in 1962. It's about bullying and following rules. It's about war and what it does to people to survive one. It's about marriage and raising kids. Its about how men treat women. It's big and it's small, and pretty darn amazing.

Ok, moment of true honesty, I probably am more likely to like this book than most of you because:
1. I grew up in rural Wisconsin.
2. I've been to scout camp, both as a scout and as a parent.
3. I was the official bugler for my small town's VFW Post for my entire high school career, and played Taps at many funerals and Memorial Day events.

Nickolas Butler, seriously, stop stalking me and mining my life for book ideas already, geez man. Ok, I'm kidding, there is a lot more going on here than just those three things, but I loved Shotgun Lovesongs and this novel was also right up my alley. And I also thought that the audiobook was quite well done, even better than Shotgun Lovesongs as they stuck with one reader who didn't noticeably botch the Midwest accent. They could have used a well placed reference to a bubbler though.

The book is really divided up into three different sections spaced decades apart. I think the middle section was probably the toughest as we got to see now adult Jonathan in a pretty bad light, and there was not a whole lot of redemption in this section itself. And then the jump to the third act, when we find out who all is going to camp and why just them, that's a kick to the gut, but well delivered.

One minor nit to pick - I thought that the action of the third act was maybe a little too drawn out, we didn't need quite as much foreshadowing that one of the dads at camp was a creep. But then I'm a female reader, and it's not much of a leap for me to reach that conclusion. All of those pages and pages of build up seemed overkill, whereas we could have had more focus on Thomas' experiences at camp and not just Rachel's perspective.

Overall it was very satisfying. The parts fit together well. I look forward to reading more by this author.
Profile Image for Lisa Roberts.
1,442 reviews
April 8, 2017
Nelson is a boy scout who wants to become and Eagle scout and has more badges than anyone else in his troop. This should make him the envy of others, but he is made fun of, distrusted and bullied. He also becomes the "snitch" or the "good boy", depending on whose perspective you are hearing. Nelson's father is a difficult man but his mother loves him very much. The first part of the story follows Nelson and his boy scout and home life as well as some of the other boys. This part reveals the hearts of these boys and men, all very different from one another.

Part 2 is many years later opening up with Nelsons one and only "friend", Jonathon. Jonathon is taking his son to boy scout camp and examines his marriage and son. His heart is examined as is his son's, Trevor. Jonathon, who seemed to have a heart in his teens, has had a change of heart and this change is examined.

Two other parts follow and it is more of the same but with successive generations. Nelson, who stole our hearts in the beginning pages makes appearances in all of these sections and his life changes in many ways, but does his heart change?

There is a strange occurrence at the end which I wish would have been left out, it is ugly and simply not necessary to show us the hearts of men.

I enjoyed the writing and the characters and the way the author explored the hearts of men without telling us too much. I only wish that Nelson had remained the main character throughout and that his life would have been explored more. I sense that an editor took out the parts that delved deeper into Nelson, if so, I want those pages back.
Profile Image for Neil.
Author 2 books45 followers
May 5, 2017
This book is deceptive in scope. It begins as the simple story of Nelson Doughty, a kid from 1962 Wisconsin with a bad home life who earnestly tries to live a life governed by the Boy Scout creed and merit badge achievements, but who other boys see as too uptight, a civic striver in a changing world. His only friend is Jonathan Quick, who is popular with boys and parents alike, but is deep down somewhat shiftless. A memorable 1962 scout camp experience in the Wisconsin north woods reveals deeper truths about both of them and the changing world they live in.

The novel continues through over 50 years of life for Nelson, Jonathan, and their families, ending with a section narrated by the wife of Jonathan's son. Through their lives, we see a changing America, with morals that shift for both the good and bad.

The time period covered by this book is pretty much my own lifespan, although I'm a little younger than the two lead characters. I was a boy scout, and an anxious striver like Nelson, but with more skepticism like Jonathan. Still, I related to the book. It rings true for me. I would recommend it as both entertaining and as food for thought for anyone who has lived through the same time periods as the characters.
Profile Image for Sue .
1,612 reviews98 followers
October 27, 2016
I loved Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler and was anxious to read his new book. Thanks to winning a goodreads giveaway, I didn't have to wait until publication day and was able to read this fantastic book early.

This is a wonderful coming of age story about boys. It highlights three different generations of males at a camp in Wisconsin. It also shows how bullying someone as a teen affects their later years. It is beautifully written with fantastic characters. I wish that my grandson was a little older so he could read it. I thought it was a wonderful book and I look forward to the next book from this author.
Profile Image for Dina.
581 reviews315 followers
December 29, 2017
La puntuación real sería 3,5 y ahora explico el por qué. El libro es bueno, pero es muy tremendo de Dios. Lo encontré demasiado deprimente y triste en general. Habla de hombres, de tres generaciones de hombres y de sus desgracias, porque todos hasta el más recto tiene sus miserias y es desconsolador como lo plantea.
Prefiero mil veces Canciones de amor a quemarropa, este me ha dejado un poso amargo, de hecho de haberlo sabido creo que no lo hubiera leído.
Profile Image for Simone Subliminalpop.
667 reviews44 followers
April 4, 2018
Un romanzo solido che perde un po' di smalto nella terza e ultima parte (forse per il tentativo di mettere troppa carne al fuoco).

"Era meglio essere discreti. Affidarsi al silenzio. Quello, almeno, poteva essere scambiato per una specie di virtù."
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