One of my favorite authors is Willy Vlautin. He’s an example of the voice that comes with someone who is from or who writes stories set in the Pacific Northwest. Some say the writing is grittier, grey-er, and just a little hard. Vlautin writes characters you don’t find in eastern literature. And let’s face it, there’s something about the west that has always been intriguing.
Now comes Smith Henderson with his debut novel “Fourth of July Creek.” This is one of those novels where the setting is as much of a character as any of the individuals featured. And since the setting is the forests of Montana, the book has those qualities that define much of that region’s literature. This book’s style reminded me of Vlautin’s writing.
This is not a happy book. It is a novel of heartbreaking stories and characters, and the tragedies each face are too much to bear at times. Moments of redemption or inspiration are hard to come by. The main character is thirty-something Pete Snow, a social worker living alone in the early 80s. He’s split with his wife, who has taken his teenaged daughter first to another apartment in a nearby town and then to Texas. Snow’s brother is on the lam, and his dad is dying. His job is equally depressing–perhaps as a way of turning away from his own problems, he throws himself into social work, where he nobly tries to solve the even worse problems of others. Snow’s social work is not the only place where you meet the characters that are downtrodden and broken, but it is a large part of the story.
Snow encounters a young boy, Benjamin, who, we learn, lives in the woods with his father Jeremiah Pearl. The Pearls are disconnected from society, paranoid and fearful of any form of government, and they are mostly without basic health or food needs. The father is counterfeiting money in an attempt to undermine U.S. currency. The son is young enough he mostly just sponges up what his dad offers, but at times you can see a curiosity in the world that implies he might not wind up like his father. I suspect Henderson named Pearl for a reason; as his story is uncovered, we learn more and more about his condition and how a set of hard to comprehend events shaped his persona and worldview. Henderson deftly unravels the story–it is a family drama and tragedy that almost feels like we are reading a mystery.
There is a second and important track of the story that is about Snow’s daughter who runs away and finds herself caught up in a world of drugs, alcohol, crime, and other unspeakable horrors. As Snow careens back and forth between trying to find her and trying to understand the Pearls, his own life comes almost entirely unraveled. Her story is too much to bear at times, but because of it, we bear witness to all of Pete’s flaws–his inability to manage his life or his family’s, his reliance on alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, and his tendency to take on the problems of others as a way of running away from his own.
All this takes place in the early eighties in the mountains and forests of Montana. Henderson’s writing about the land and the region is powerful–allowing him to simultaneously show off his skills of story development and his ability to create an memorable atmosphere that takes the reader to a completely different place and time. This guy is a talent folks.
I think this was a brilliant novel and I’d consider it one of my favorites of 2014, along with “The Goldfinch” and “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.” “The Goldfinch” was spectacular but the characters faced nowhere near the level of hardship that Snow and the Pearls and others faced in “Fourth of July Creek.” The other two stories were woven together nicely, but Henderson parceled out the Pearl story so perfectly that when you finally understand everything near the end of the novel, you are left with an open jaw. It is a masterful exercise in story-telling.
And for those of you who want more than just a compelling story, this has some broad themes that could inspire thoughtful discussion. Whether you discuss Snow’s judgment as a parent or his performance as a social worker, or broader themes of government and liberty, or even western culture, I think you’ll find that this book will start a helluva conversation.
If you choose to read this, brace yourself for a dark and sad story. And be prepared to be unable to put it down.
Thanks for reading.