After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral 11-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face-to-face with the boy's profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times. But as Pete's own family spins out of control, Pearl's activities spark the full-blown interest of the FBI, putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed. In this shattering and iconic American novel, Smith Henderson explores the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion, and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation's disquieting and violent contradictions. Fourth of July Creek is an unforgettable, unflinching debut that marks the arrival of a major literary talent.
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I'd not heard of Smith Henderson. He has won both the Pushcart Prize and a PEN Emerging Writers Award in 2011; he also wrote the Emmy-nominated Super Bowl commercial “Halftime in America” which featured Clint Eastwood. The buzz in such circles that follow these kind of *accomplishments* has his name and the *Great American Novel* in the same orbit. Oblivious to Henderson prior to Audible's *Best of the Month* book list, I found myself, throughout this one, asking, "Can this truly be a debut novel?"
It is no coincidence that Henderson dips his toe into the book writing business with the aptly named Fourth of July Creek. His depiction of 1980's America is heartbreaking and beautiful -- the kind of story flowing with the flotsam and jetsam down-and-outters that would have inspired a Woody Guthrie song. Like watching the ripples radiate from a rock thrown into Henderson's creek, the story grows and encompasses different themes and struggles until it slams onto the landscape of 'this land made for you and me' of today.
The ghosts of Tom Joad inhabit the pages. Henderson's wretched refuse battle their own demons: poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, neglect, and mental illness, Hope driving them on as they struggle for different kinds of freedom. The people seem scraped from our underbelly. Even the DCFS case worker, Pete Snow, is a divorced alcoholic -- dispersing disposable diapers from the trunk of his car to homeless mothers, hiking into the mountains to aid the son of a Old Testament quoting survivalist. His own teen daughter has run away, disappearing into the seedy Seattle life of prostitution and drug addiction. He admits to his ex-wife, "I take kids away from people like us." (An insider's joke in psychology has always been: the odd treating the id.)
How is it that we go on reading when an author makes us ache to our bones? When we can see the projection of an inevitable disaster, the futility of any effort, the cruelty of hope? Because Henderson's language is like a healing balm. It is elegant and rings with bare truth. He glides effortlessly from despair and ugliness to the beautiful realism redolent of Woodrell's *hillbilly noir* novel Winter's Bone, and the zen-like beauty of Heller's Dog Stars. It is restorative, redemptive. How can this be a debut novel?
I'll admit 5 stars is generous. It takes a commitment to get going, and it is a gritty tough novel -- but it is worth it. Novels that still vibrate in you long after you finish them, or when you hear the title mentioned, are rare. This one is like a Steinbeck and McCarthy novel taped together, with a Guthrie and Springsteen soundtrack running through the pages.
**I will caution readers: the female characters here range from meth-head child abusers to full blown mental cases that murder their whole families, with nothing in between but prostitutes and hard-boiled backwoods ignoramuses. If you are looking for the positive female pillar of righteousness...wrong book.
Finally, I was curious about Guthrie's patriotic anthem "This Land Was Made For You and Me". Inspired to read the lyrics, I found the Dustbowl Balladeer's original verses -- which aren't contained in the song we learned back in elementary school:
Nobody living can ever stop me, As I go walking that freedom highway; Nobody living can ever make me turn back This land was made for you and me. In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple; By the relief office, I'd seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?
Smith Henderson’s "Fourth of July Creek" is about broken lives and institutional failure. After two chapters, a listener wonders, “Is this America”? Henderson vivifies a part of America conditioned by high divorce rates, sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and institutionalized apathy.
Henderson’s hero, Pete Snow, is a divorced, alcoholic social worker. Snow works in child welfare services, covering a large area of Montana. Snow makes a point of saying he is not a cop whenever he is investigating a home with children that are suspected of being neglected. Though Snow is careful to distance himself from police, he is mired in the same dark side of humanity. Snow is a character that sees the worst side of human nature; i.e. like a cop, Snow is exposed to a world of human’ degradation that fills and empties his life.
Henderson frames a story that captures American government failure. The book can be listened to as a cautionary tale, a call to action, or just a well written tale of travail. At the very least, one comes away with the feeling of how lucky they are to have not lived the life of one of Henderson’s characters. MacLeod Andrews’ and Jenna Lamia’s narration add to the drama of Henderson’s expertly written fiction.