The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt-and-gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla. Through the dirt window, he spotted some blond hair falling, and he hiked in his gut, hoping that the woman in there would be something to have a look at. Which is to say he did not expect what got out: a guy in his late twenties, maybe thirty, pulling on a denim coat against the cold morning air blowing down the mountain, ducking back into the car for a moment, reemerging with paperwork. – from Fourth of July Creek, page 1 –
Pete Snow is a social worker in the Montana wilderness of Tenmile, a small town in the middle of nowhere outside of Missoula. He is divorced, fighting with his ex-wife and his surly teenage daughter, and trying to steer clear of his troubled brother who has recently beat up a parole officer and taken off to parts unknown. When a bedraggled boy is picked up in town, Pete decides to hike up into the wilderness to return the boy to his family. He has no idea that the boy’s father, a radical man named Benjamin Pearl, might just not want to be found.
Fourth of July Creek is about the unraveling of family and community as Benjamin Pearl becomes more paranoid and unpredictable and Pete’s personal life slides out of control with the disappearance of his daughter and an FBI investigation.
Smith Henderson’s first novel (he has published numerous short works and won the 2011 Pushcart Prize) is a bit of a doorstopper at over 450 pages, and there were times I thought it could have stood a little editing. Despite this, Henderson’s prose is gritty and mesmerizing as the story unspools into chaos. Pete is not terribly likable, and yet I found myself hoping he would sort out his problems and find a happy ending, not only for himself, but for the damaged people he is trying to help.
Henderson reveals the struggles of rural Americans including poverty, illegal drug use, homelessness, and broken families. Benjamin Pearl becomes symbolic of a modern America where fear of government intrusion and paranoia about losing freedom spirals into a madness that would be funny if it were not so terrifying.
Fourth of July Creek is a dark commentary on the problems facing our country. Pete Snows struggle to save the families of Tenmile, while losing the fight to save his own family, becomes a compelling story about one man’s quest to find meaning in a disconnected world.
Readers who enjoy novels set in the rural Pacific Northwest which are literary in style, will want to give this one a try. Smith Henderson is an author to watch.