Fourth of July Creek

By Smith Henderson

A title like Fourth of July Creek suggests another run at the Great American Novel, and the fact that it’s the debut novel of Smith Henderson, whose best-known credit previous to this is writing the egregious, and truly unforgiveable, Super Bowl commercial “Halftime in America” (starring Clint Eastwood), may make the casual reader take a step back.

But hopefully not too far back. Henderson bears comparison to Jonathan Franzen as a dramatic chronicler of contemporary American life, and though he’s more remote in his subject matter – backwoods and hardscrabble where Franzen is bourgeois and suburban – he has the same intense readability and feel for modern states of mind.

Fourth of July Creek is set in the early 1980s in Montana, a rather barren place that seems dominated by the colour brown. We drive through “hills the color of toast,” and an “ugly scrubscrape the color of dirty pennies” with its “stubbled fields in five kinds of brown.” Even one of the minor characters is described as smelling “like brown. Like whiskey, tobacco, and river water.”

The residents of this harsh brown landscape are a hard workin’, hard drinkin’, hard fightin’ and hard lovin’ bunch. Our hero is Pete Snow, a divorced, semi-alcoholic social worker with the Department of Family Services operating out of the town of Tenmile, a place where biology throbs and churns.

Pete’s own life is a mess, with a brother wanted by the law and a runaway daughter, but he still has to do his best to help others in even more trouble, including a young boy named Benjamin Pearl who is being raised in the woods by his father Jeremiah, a demented, conspiracy-nut survivalist.

It’s life on the wrong side of the tracks, to be sure, but Pete (on one of his better days) has a vision of it as a calling to minister to fallen humanity, dreaming of how “all of life can be understood as casework,” with the DFS being “a kind of priesthood.”

In a novel so structured around the theme of people as damaged goods it’s no surprise that dysfunctional parent-child relationships become a refrain. Children are abandoned, neglected, physically abused, and worse, by parents who are absent, intoxicated, stoned, or just plain crazy.

Their homes may be a trailer, a shack in the woods without electricity, or even a tent or lean-to. A lot of time is spent by Pete, and others, just trying to find people. We are among a class with no permanent residence.

Henderson’s multi-track, almost gothic plot is smoothly paced and his language has a rural, earth-tone feel to it, right down to the “howdy” greetings and the use of redundant locutions like “might could” (as in we “might could have a freeze coming”). And while many of his characters are types – the religious wing-nuts, the pot farmers, the brutal cops, the good ol’ boys and hillbillies – he usually stays just this side of making them caricatures. They all have his sympathy.

It’s ironic, and the irony is a big part of the book’s message, that Jeremiah Pearl is both a believer in the Rapture as well as a representative of the damned Left Behind. This is a novel about the human wreckage left behind by personal failures, not to mention a part of the United States – the so-called “fly-over” portion – about to be left even further behind by the changing economy of the twenty-first century.

This is less halftime in America then it is the End Times, as much for the downwardly mobile as for the rapture-ready. Families have broken down completely, with mistrust and the fallout from violence being passed on to every new generation. And the only thing preventing the chickens coming home to roost is the fact that they no longer have any fixed address.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 9, 2014.

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