...[a] gut-punch of a novel ... The Hearts of Men has much to say about goodness and its opposite; about honor; and about manhood, its difficulties and precise texture. How it equivocates, how it can protect or maim ... in laying out this idea, Butler makes the book too schematic. The non-scouting world is unremittingly immoral and decayed. The men divide neatly into angel-heroes and devil-villains. And fate’s cruelties are relentless; these are sad lives, one and all. The problem with schematic stories isn’t in the execution, it’s that they feel foreordained. The author’s strong hand inhibits spontaneity ... These are not minor concerns. Yet the book overwhelms any quibbles. I keep coming back to Nelson, Butler’s great creation. He is a character of such vivid goodness, such moving and precise sorrow, I don’t think I’ll ever forget him. And in the end isn’t that what we ask of a novel, that it be unforgettable?
For 258 pages, The Hearts of Men speeds along with devastating descriptions of the cruelty inherent in adolescent bullying and other forms of torture that come from standing out in a homogeneous culture. But the plot twists once too often, looking forward to 2019 through the eyes of Quick’s widowed daughter-in-law, and the writing breaks down into something that is too predictably plotted to compare to the stylistic sophistication the reader has grown to expect ... The disappointing conclusion does not undermine the lessons that Butler teaches about the betrayal, abandonment and hurt that people inflict on one another. But given Butler’s remarkable skills, The Hearts of Men offers a reminder of how frustrating it is to encounter a good book that could have been great.
Butler achieves a rare triple play here of brilliant characterizations, a riveting story line, and superlatively measured prose, putting him in the front ranks of contemporary American writers of literary fiction.