A very pleasant surprise is in store if you read Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. This nearly epic novel is the author’s first, and he exhibits a maturity in his thinking, his writing, in the complexities of his plot, his delineation of character, and his extraordinary empathy for his people. Set in contemporary Montana, the central character is a man named Pete, an alcoholic social worker for the state, whose territory is vast, and who sees people at their absolute worst. States like Montana have attracted new isolationists, a phenomenon that took off in earnest after the Vietnam War. A percentage of returning vets believed in a vast government conspiracy against its people—these are the black helicopter folks—and some combination of paranoia, sometimes religious fervor, and apocalyptic beliefs has such people settling in the most isolated parts of America, often in the vast spaces of the Rocky Mountain West. Henderson writes eloquently and brilliantly about these people, and this terrain, which he clearly knows well and loves.
We see Pete, who is really the book’s narrator and protagonist, in his attempts to save children from drug-addled parents, as well as one particular family of religious isolationists. Small town Montana politics interweave through the novel, and we are led to believe that what passes for justice there hasn’t evolved much from frontier days. Concurrently, Pete’s own marriage has fallen apart, and, in the course of the book, his thirteen year old daughter runs away, and although he actually finds her, she runs from him too. Henderson is able to explain and describe the world of the homeless teenagers, drugged and sexually abused and/or made into prostitutes, with astonishing realism. The novel indicts the system of government bureaucrats who are both indifferent to the suffering of the families they serve, but indicts federal government officials from the BFT and their hatred of all outsiders. These themes interweave throughout the novel, and it is Pete’s character and line of work that brings them together.
The characters of Jeremiah and Benjamin Pearl, father and son, who are two of the religious survivalist family members living off the land in the far reaches of Montana, are the book’s most interesting and compelling. Henderson is able to humanize the father, in spite of his bizarre physical appearance after years of living in the woods, and, in Benjamin, the roughly ten year old son, Henderson has given us the single most evolved child in American literature in decades. Benjamin is worth the whole book, as he begins to trust Pete, as eventually his father will. As government forces move in on this family, for reasons either don’t exist or for reasons invented and concocted, their world view is confirmed, and a partial apocalypse does occur, caused by government, but affirmed by the Pearl family philosophy. Henderson is able to allow the readers to understand how these two forces become symbiotic, almost need each other, and the book’s denouement includes our understanding that there is a very short distance between Pete and Jeremiah Pearl, and probably all of us.
This understanding of the Pearls, and their basic humanity, and our empathy for and with the alcoholic Pete and his heroic attempts to find his daughter, make Fourth of July Creek a move from a very good book to a great book, and an incredible debut novel. It reminds me of Phillipp Meyer’s novel The Sons, which I listed as second best of the year last year. Both writers choose to portray these family sagas within the context of the sweeping landscape of the west, and thus make epics out of the daily struggles of an increasingly baffled America, a country at war with its own soul.
By: Daniel Brown