February 17: “Beneath the Bonfire” by Nickolas Butler

Here’s a secret about Story366: I often have to write it while petting my cat. Some of you know the great Salami Sandwich from FB posts, but if you don’t, he looks like your average orange tabby, but is actually a dog. He plays fetch, bringing me toys to throw, and when he’s not doing that, he insists on being the center of my world, lying across my keyboard as I type. Last night, while reading Nickolas Butler’s book Beneath the Bonfire, he was more relentless than ever, rubbing against my legs, dropping his toys by my feet, and if I didn’t respond, he’d get on his hind legs and claw at my arm.

My answer to this was reverse psychology, to overstimulate him for a couple of minutes, thinking he’d get tired of me, letting the cat genes sink in, wander away, get bored. I sprawled across the dining room floor, Butler’s book in hand, right next to the cage of our giant bunny, Peter Rabbit. I petted the cat with fervor for ten minutes, threw his toy a bunch of times, hoping I could just read for a bit without having my flesh scratched open. Instead, he only wanted more attention, and on top of that, the bunny crawled out of his cage and pushed against my other arm (with the book in it) with his nose. He wanted some love, too. So there I was, spread eagle on my back on the hardwood floor, petting a massive white rabbit with one hand, a canine-feline hybrid with the other. That went on for like twenty minutes, me falling asleep every so often, woken by a cold nose pushing at me from one end or the other, reminding me I was not being paid to sleep.

Eventually, the bunny crawled back in his cage, the cat scurried off, and I was able to get into Butler’s book. I’d read the first story in this collection, “The Chainsaw Soirée,” a couple of months ago, when I first bought the book, and really liked it, so much so I passed it out to my graduate students and we talked about it in class. Part Raymond Carver (for its sparsity), part Rick Bass (because it’s, you know, set in the woods), Butler’s lead story took turns we didn’t expect, and overall, we had a nice conversation about it. Cageside, I read deeper into Beneath the Bonfire, to the title story, “Beneath the Bonfire,” which I’ll discuss today.

This is a really great story, I’ll make clear, the best in a book of stories I enjoyed very much. “Beneath the Bonfire” is Kat’s story, told in third person, and she’s smitten with a guy named Pieter. The couple lives off Lake Michigan in northern Wisconsin, in a town that makes an annual tradition of burning everyone’s Christmas trees in the middle of the frozen lake, a great bonfire that sprouts a mini-festival, music and drinking and food surrounding this enormous blaze. Pieter is a veteran, of the bonfire and a military tour in Afghanistan, while Kat is a first-tiimer. She, like many a reader, wonders how there can be a fire on ice, and Pieter explains the three-foot thickness, which might stretch to six, how they’re going to keep their distance, and nobody’s ever fallen in before. Kat acquiesces, throwing herself into the experience.

Kat’s willingness to oblige Pieter is tested when he cuts a man-sized hole in the ice with a chainsaw (Butler likes those, apparently) and announces he’s going SCUBA diving underneath. Kat thinks he’s joking, but he’s not: They go back to his cabin to get ready, having sex while they’re there, and then both get into wetsuits, strap on their tanks, and head back to the hole. Kat is hesitant—personally, I wouldn’t go anywhere near the lake or the hole, let alone jump in and swim underneath, in the dark—but she goes, as she doesn’t want Pieter to go without her. He gives her a quick lesson (she’s SCUBAed once before, in the Carribean), and down they go, tethered together by a chord.

Everything that happens henceforth reveals the true nature of Kat, of the relationship. The chord is a metaphor. The ice is a metaphor. The fire on the ice is a larger metaphor—two contrasting powers thrust together are much like Kat and Pieter in Butler’s tale. Told in a series of flashbacks, Pieter’s origin reveals his character, a veteran back home, seeking thrills of any kind, be it twelve-hour jaunts on roller coasters, copious amounts of sex, or diving into freezing water, in the pitch black, a tiny hole the only escape route from claustrophobic death. At the same time, we find out how much Kat was needing a man like Pieter, or more importantly, his unquenchable need for action. Kat, e.g., had never had an orgasm before Pieter, then Pieter comes along, and he wants to fuck a dozen times a day, something he’s good at. It’s not so much that Kat needs fucking specifically, but that she needs something, anything. Once she gets it, she won’t let it go, a cat-and-bunny-level need for Pieter’s attention.

This terror comes at the heels of some pretty awesome description, that awesome image of an enormous fire, seen through the water, through the layer of ice, the starry sky above. The image seems like the proud son of that image in Bass’s “The Hermit’s Story,” the old hermit leading a pack of dogs, by torchlight, through hollow tunnels at the bottom of a frozen lake. I’ll bet Butler had his image first, this bonfire event, and built his story around it. It’s no wonder he made this the title story of his collection. It’s fantastic.

Nickolas Butler’s first book is the novel Shotgun Lovesongs, a New York Times Bestseller, a book I haven’t read, but am now very interested in. I love every story I’ve read in his collection Beneath the Bonfire, and highly recommend. Might be some chainsaws.

Nickolas Butler