Off The Grid Reads: 'Fourth Of July Creek' By Smith Henderson
So you've finally had it. You're sick of the grind: the job, email, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, television constantly trying to sell you shit you don't need. When you were first starting out, you never pictured your life turning out the way it has. You always thought you'd live close to the land, maybe farm and hunt your food, build your house with your own hands, fall in love with a woman who had the same ideals. But nope, nothing of the sort has happened. After college you networked hard with your dorm-mate from Juarez and started a highly profitable "import/export" business. You married a gold-digging whore with a great rack, bleach blonde hair and zero activity going on between the ears. The two of you popped out three of the dumbest, most spoiled brats North America has ever seen, and for a few years, well, you forgot about living off the land. At least until your former roommate and business partner was found in a San Antonio landfill minus his head, and suddenly your dreams of living in the wild were reborn.
You ditch the gold digger, the brats, and your McMansion in Dallas. You hire a guy who can hide you indefinitely and provide you with the simple life you've always wanted for a mere fifty-thousand-dollars a month, which is a small price to pay considering the feeling of security and well-being your new middle of nowhere Montana environs is providing you. The only thing you miss is your library. You spent a lifetime building the damn thing up, and now it's probably nothing more than a pile of ash. What makes you even sadder is your little middle of nowhere cabin contains zero books. Plenty of shitty DVD's, but no reading material. For an extra five grand, your savior agrees to bring you a book a month. You make up a short list, provide him with your pick, a massive tome you've wanted to crack open, but haven't found the time to read, and your second pick is…
'Fourth Of July Creek' by Smith Henderson
As a parent, the foster care system scares the absolute shit out of me. I consider myself lucky that I’ve surrounded myself with enough family and friends that if something ever happens to me and Mrs. Rawson, I know our daughter will go to a good and loving home that will help her cope with the loss. Yeah, I know it’s a long shot something like that’s going to happen, but still, it’s something that lingers in the back of your minds. And yeah, I know that 90% of the adults who are foster parents are good, honest people, but there’s that 10% who’re nothing but money hungry hunks of garbage or are just flat out creeps who hold their shit together in front of state agencies, but then turn into monsters once the eyes of overworked and underpaid social workers aren’t on them.
I don’t even want to think about group homes.
Now let’s talk about social workers. As far as I’m concerned, they’re truly some of the most essential, and yet completely unheralded people in our society. Too often they have to play the role of both hero and villain. They’re heroes because they come into homes to make sure children are being taken care of; that they have a decent roof over their heads, food to eat, and that they’re not being exposed to behaviors that will forever alter their emotional DNA. And they’re villains if they have to remove children from a toxic home. Yes, we know that it is best for the child, but the child being taken from their parents isn’t going to think so. To them, the social worker is a monster, or maybe they see them as savior if the child knows the situation they’re in is bad.
And, of course, you have to wonder what type of person is drawn to this kind of work? What motivates them day-after-day to basically clean up the world’s shit and bring some kind of order into the lives of people who more often than not see them as adversaries as opposed to saviors.
The protagonist, Pete Snow, of Smith Henderson’s extraordinary debut novel, Fourth Of July Creek, is such a person. From the first chapter, we see Snow having to deal with a volatile situation between a speed addled mother and her damaged adolescent son. Snow has been called in by the local rural Montana sheriffs department to defuse a fight between the two. Snow fully acknowledges there isn’t anything he can do for either of them, but yet he steps in fearlessly because he knows if he doesn’t, both the son and the mother will be thrown further into a system that neither acknowledges or cares about their individual problems, and will do nothing but add a deadly weight to their badly bruised psyches.
By the end of the chapter, Snow ends up removing the son from the home and moving him into (albeit temporarily) the home of a generous local farm family. But his real concern isn’t the mother and son, but the mother’s four-year-old daughter, who see’s Snow as both a security blanket and a white knight. She needs Snow for the brief moments of comfort and solace he provides when he visits, and Snow needs them just as much as she does, because in these visits, he has some level of control in the walking train wreck that is his life outside of his clients.
Snow is just as damaged and vulnerable as most of his clients. He’s a drunk and completely incapable of maintaining longterm relationships. His ex-wife—who is just as equally damaged and emotionally stunted—hates him, and their teenage daughter both resents him and craves his attention, but neither is equipped to express themselves. So instead, the three do nothing but runaway from their problems and hijack any semblance of a normal life they could have together. Snow drives his wife away with his drinking and misery, then the wife drives him away by having an affair, and later moving herself and their daughter to Austin, Texas. And finally the daughter runs away from both of them and drifts into life as a street kid. (The secondary storyline of Fourth Of July Creek is told from the daughter’s POV and provides some of the most stunning passages in the novel.)
But Snow carries on, buries himself in work and attempts to form a new relationship with a co-worker—a woman raised in the system they work in, and is twice the disaster that Snow is—when he encounters the Pearls.
A young boy, Benjamin Pearl, is found wandering around the outskirts of the local elementary school. His clothing is ragged and worn, and he is extremely malnourished. Snow attempts to befriend the boy, buying him food and giving him new clothing. After providing the food and clothes, Snow drives the boy to where he says he is living with his father. They travel down a logging road and when the two exit the vehicle, the boy’s father, Jeremiah, confronts Snow, threatens him, and orders Benjamin to remove the clothes Snow has given him.
The Pearls disappear into the forest, and Snow becomes determined to help them by coming back to the spot he dropped the boy off at and leaving them food, vitamins, and water purification tablets. Eventually, Jeremiah—who is beyond paranoid, and as the novel progresses, for good reason for a number of things—comes to trust Snow when he provides Jeremiah with medicine to help clear up a particularly nasty case of snow blindness. Snow is slowly drawn into the Pearl’s off the grid world and slowly attempts to bring them back into the fold of civilization and to find out what exactly happened to Jeremiah’s wife and his other children.
As you can probably surmise, Fourth Of July Creek is a dense, expertly crafted novel. It is a dark, and at times, nihilistic journey into the lives of people living along the margins of society. These are people who carry burdens far larger than they can handle, and they compartmentalize these burdens so they’re able to carry on.
For me, this is the very essence of Fourth Of July Creek. In an intense and poignant scene midway through the novel where Snow catches his new love interest with another man, and as she tries to console him, she describes her life as a kind of jewelry box with many small drawers. There are certain drawers that you visit often and keep close to your heart so that they can remind you of the good and wonderful things in life. But there are others that you keep locked and hidden. I found this passage incredibly adapt in describing virtually every character in the book.
In the hands of a lesser novelist, the multiple intermingled storylines of Fourth Of July Creek would be a mess. But Henderson, quite simply put, is a master storyteller. On sentence-by-sentence, passage-by-passage level, I found myself getting lost in Henderson’s prose, and lingering and revisiting certain paragraphs days after originally reading them. At one point in reading the novel, I had to stop working on my own book because I started aping Henderson’s distinctive and powerful voice.
As I mentioned in my best reads of 2014 list, more than a few critics have compared Henderson to McCarthy, but I’ll state once again, Henderson writes entirely with his own pen, and while there is room for some comparison due to Henderson’s lean and muscular prose, the similarities are purely cosmetic and an easy way for reviewers to classify Henderson’s intense storytelling style.
Needless to say, I was absolutely blown away by Fourth Of July Creek and it is easily the best novel released in 2014. And I’ll go even one step further and say that Fourth Of July Creek may very well be the first truly great American novel of the 21st century.
To leave a comment