“Fourth of July Creek” a haunting debut novel

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The spotlight of contemporary American novels is often rotated towards the vivid and chaotic life of modern cityscapes. As urban centers, these settings teem with characters and conflicts continually colliding like molecules heated in a confined space. Left in the shadows then, are stories of the small, rural and often forgotten corners of the country. One of these corners, buried deep in the forested mountains of 1979 Montana, is the world of Smith Henderson’s debut novel released last month, “Fourth of July Creek.”

The story takes place in and around the tiny towns and landmarks of Western Montana. But for all their isolation, the story’s towns, centered around the tiny town of  Tenmile, bristle with unexpressed tensions amongst and within their inhabitants, and perhaps most especially within the story’s protagonist, Pete Snow. Snow is a righteously imperfect human being. As a social worker, he spends his days sorting through delinquent kids and their absent, abusive and drug-ridden parents. At the same time, Snow also tries and fails to maneuver his own crumbling family. The novel chronicles Snow’s life at the moment when he seems to have reached his breaking point — when he can no longer grasp even the wisps of his work or personal life, both tumbling entirely out of his control.

At this moment, Snow meets Benjamin. Ben is a boy who lives nowhere, is known by no one and survives by the seemingly warped guidance of his radically paranoid father, Jeremiah Pearl. As a social worker, Snow is obligated to investigate the circumstances of the Pearls’ life as they homelessly drift, through the mountains. However,  Snow finds himself drawn to the lives of both Benjamin and his father, who both only desire to disappear into the vastness of the Midwestern wilderness in wait for the The End. However, instead of escaping the outside world, they end up drawing the very political and social conflicts they wish to avoid, leaving Snow and the Tenmile community forever altered.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Henderson’s writing is that it sharply taps into the turmoil taxing each of the characters as they try and try again to locate themselves, to find a place in which they belong as their secluded world undergoes change. Henderson’s prose is demanding and visceral. It draws the reader not only into the physical setting of the story, but also every action of the characters on their individual journeys.

More broadly, the harrowing plotlines twisted together highlight the inherent imperfection of the people and social and bureaucratic systems within the story. The book deals with the implications of being crazy when crazy is defined as wrong and abnormal, and sanity as right and normal. These definitions come into conflict with one another as the characters complicate their dichotomous relationship. In doing so, the novel seems to ask the questions, are both crazy and rightness inherent in all people? Are they also inherent in governing institutions?

They are  odd questions to ask. Like the story setting itself, they are perhaps tucked away in a back corner of society’s mind. And for that very reason, they are questions that make this novel compelling, new and a little scary too. People don’t often like dragging out and analyzing the skeletons they keep in their closet, and yet that is what this story requires of its characters, and to a certain extent, its readers too.

Smith Henderson will be discussing his novel “Fourth of July Creek” at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland on June 16 at 7 p.m.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].