Nickolas Butler’s latest book Godspeed has a fairly simple premise. A small company of three builders is hired to complete a complex building project in the mountains outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The catch is the time in which they have to do the job if they want to earn the completion bonus that will set them up for the future. Butler uses this as the jumping off point not only for a tense character study of obsession, addiction and loyalty but for a broader exploration of some of the issues underpinning modern America.
When Godspeed opens Cole, Bart and Teddy are driving down a newly constructed dirt road to meet with Gretchen, the ultra-wealthy owner of the site on which her spectacular house will be built. They find a half built house, the previous contractors having quit, and are set a challenge – to finish the house by Christmas, a job that will have them working round the clock in increasingly tough conditions as winter sets into the mountains. Prior to this, the three had only done small jobs around town and the promise of both the kudos that would come from building this house and the bonus payment they are promised spurs them on.
Already at this point, Bart is identified as the weak link – having a history of alcohol and drug abuse. And it is not long before he has found a source of crystal meth to help him through the long, sometimes painful days of construction. But the others also struggle to manage the pressure and the expectations that they put on themselves. Meanwhile, Gretchen’s backstory slowly emerges, her lifelong work as a highly successful lawyer, her connection to the land on which the house is being built and the reasons behind her demand that the house be finished quickly.
While focussing on the personal, Butler manages to dig into the American dream – finding purpose in your life, running a successful business, owning your own home – and questioning it through the lens of different characters:
Whenever [Teddy] thought about the mortgage, his chest tightened, so he put that out of his mind. America is the greatest country in the world, his father always used to tell him, as long as you don’t run out of money. Now those words rang in his head. The only solution was to work harder, harder and then harder still.
In the background of all of this is the growing disparity between rich and poor, and the impact of new money flowing into established regional communities.
Godspeed is a simple tale well told. Well-drawn characters subject to a mounting pressure and the need to make ethical and moral decisions that test and expose them all, leading to a series of tragic and triumphant climaxes. So that it is a tale with plenty of depth, and one that readers are likely to still be contemplating well after turning the last page.
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