Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

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There’s a strange, meandering logic driving Smith Henderson’s big-hearted debut of a novel, Fourth of July Creek. Those names both seem quirkily off-kilter: is that really his first name, and his last name? (One imagines the consternation of grade-school teachers coming to his spot in a roll call.) And what’s the Fourth of July got to do with a creek?

On the surface, this novel sounds like a slice-of-life narrative about a social worker in a little town so bereft of anything special as to be named Tenmile for its distance from some degree of civilization. But quickly this puzzlement creeps in. The social worker, Pete Snow, proves himself to be no saint but an alcoholic who split from his wife and daughter and who now drinks his sorrows away. On a trip back to Missoula (the hours of driving one has to do in rural areas numbs the mind), the wife ends up begging for his forgiveness. A few pages later, she and their daughter have left for Texas.

This daughter, Rachel, is featured in another strand within the novel: an extended question-and answer between an interrogator and an extraordinarily knowledgeable witness who details what happens to this girl after she disappears from her mother’s house in Texas. It takes several chapters before it is clear who they are talking about, and why we might be inclined to care. At times, one of the two speakers will go off on tangents or full-blown stories; even by the novel’s end, we are hard-pressed to explain exactly who these two men were.

And in the middle of all this are other cases to be handled, children to be saved, and fights to be broken up—all of which is doled out with equal measures of tired resignation and wry chuckles. One particularly recalcitrant case of Pete’s dashes heedlessly out of a restaurant, only to be caught:

The big old rancher who’d been pumping diesel had Cecil in a standing full nelson just inside the door . . . Cecil tried to twist and slip free but the ranger simply clenched the boy all the more tightly, lifted him up onto his tiptoes.

The most compelling narrative however, is that of a younger and smaller boy named Benjamin Pearl and his father. Pete starts by trying to give him clothes that aren’t ragged (courtesy of Family Services) and ends up following him deep into Montana’s backwoods, where Jeremiah, the seemingly crackpot father, jealously scopes his area with a rifle and very little patience.

Smith Henderson

Smith Henderson

Jeremiah’s certain belief in the evil of government and the nearness of the world’s end has him creating his own currency by carving intricate symbols into coins and distributing them across Montana—a process that eventually enmeshes him within a huge federal manhunt that only serves to validate his paranoia. Unsurprisingly, the contours of this strange family takes the lion’s share of the novel’s momentum.

As with Shameless, that brilliant Showtime series centering on a poorer-than-dirt family struggling to stay together in Chicago’s South Side, it is hard not to feel some degree of astonishment, and even sympathy, toward these characters and their frequent self-absorption. A particularly glorious moment results from Pete’s meeting three hostile dogs left to fend for themselves by a delinquent property-owner:

[Pete] paused a moment in sympathy for the guileless animals, genuinely touched by the raw beauty and ideal breeding snarling wildly at the inch-wide gap in his window. Then he maced one dog square in its snapping face with exquisite joy. It bucked back and twirled coughing, fell, scrambled up in the mud, and then careened blind until it collided into a metal shed at full speed with an explosive bang.

But unlike an episode of Shameless, the book takes its time. There is very little hurry for anything to happen; even Pete Snow’s frantic flights across the country as he searches for his missing daughter are drained of any urgency. Everything becomes slowed down, almost indistinguishable in mood.

The sentences unfurl lazily but beautifully; ten-dollar words (tropism, claustral, travois) slip neatly like coins into perfectly fitted slots—meaningful if we choose to investigate them, perfectly sensible if we skip over them. Place names, too. What does it matter that the Fourth of July Creek is a real place, so named because Lewis and Clark supposedly crossed it on that date in 1806? The name has long since been stripped of meaning. Everywhere, things that used to have significance become empty. Most memorably, “Wyoming” becomes a lowercase verb connoted with aimlessness, with heading to open spaces: “she wyoms . . .”

Does this book wyom? In a way, it does; it forces readers to look at vast swathes of the country largely unknown to the reading public. And it forces them to wander and wonder, both about the style—why are present-day events told in the past tense, and past events told in the present tense?—and about the substance—was hardscrabble life really this way back in the seventies and eighties? Is it really any different from dirt-poor and rural life now?

By the book’s end, many threads have been neatly tied together. We find out why Pete and his wife separated. We find out where Rachel (now Rose) disappeared to. We find out what happens to Jeremiah and Benjamin and the never-seen members of their large family. We even find out what happens to Cecil, who has gotten himself into one fight too many. The whole thing has been a wyoming but finally scintillating read as we watch all these deranged, half-wrecked people spinning on the axes of their lives, hurtling headlong from their hardscrabble pasts into their stark futures.

Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in The White Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, and The Quarterly Conversation. In his free time, he does not listen to music. More from this author →