Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek is as gourmet a piece of writing as an author can produce and the fact that this is a debut novel is mind boggling. The writing is so smooth it goes down like lobster dipped in melted butter. It feels as if Henderson’s impeccable phrasing has translated English into a whole new language.  Yes, you may need a dictionary to get every nuanced sentence exactly as intended and the book is a tad long but Henderson’s words aren’t prim or academic.  The book is primarily set in Montana and the characters’ cadence and speech reflect their setting.

Fourth of July Creek is a brutally shattering tale of families that go off track without knowing they’ve slipped. Pete Snow is a rural Montana social worker whose own family makes dysfunctional seem like a step up. When he meets mountain man Jeremiah Pearl through Pearl’s son Benjamin who has scurvy and giardia, he hopes to gain Pearl’s trust. Pearl is a paranoid survivalist hell-bent on preparations for the Biblical End Times and he doesn’t stay in one place long enough to listen. When the FBI and other agencies enter the search for Pearl, Snow is caught in the cross-hairs.

Pete Snow is a flawed man; he drinks too much and he’s lonely and confused but he consistently tries to do the right thing by the kids on his watch. He shows up when and where he thinks there’s need.  That should be a good thing but the book’s epigraph predicts that it may not be so: 
If I knew for certain’ty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.  – Henry David Thoreau

Snow’s “conscious design” to help Cecil, an emotionally damaged boy, has several unintended consequences no one could predict.  Even Snow’s turning out of his own brother, a fugitive running from a demented parole officer, doesn’t work as it should.  The side story of Snow’s 13-year-old daughter Rachel who’s on the run and its reminder that Pete can’t find his own child to save her is almost too bleak to be palatable.  The reader knows Rachel will end up in deep trouble yet it’s still difficult to watch her descend.  In Rachel’s tale, Henderson’s ability to write so well is something of a curse as it forces the reader into her downward spiral.

This novel’s grace is Henderson’s dialogue and his pacing.  As Pete Snow sits in a diner, the waitress says “I could just spit.”  Snow replies, “I’ll bet you could do better’n that.”

She has had a hard life – you can tell from the way her face has aged, the frowns etched there – but Pete’s remark elicits an endangered smile. He’s recognized her, something deeply true about her, and it is a pleasant thing to be seen and for her toughness to be acknowledged.

“Yeah, I could do better than that. What’ll you have hon?”

Summing it Up: Smith Henderson has written a novel that recognizes that people, even people like Jeremiah Pearl and Rachel Snow, who’ve run away from life, still want to be acknowledged. Fourth of July Creek has already been nominated for the Laherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the prognosticators predict more nominations and awards to come.  Read this debut novel to taste the flawlessly rendered, authentic America that Henderson serves up on a polished-to-a-high-sheen platter.  Cormac McCarthy fans will love the setting and language if not the length. At 467 pages, it’s just a touch too long.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
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