Book review: Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

The enigma that is America has rarely been so exquisitely and brutally depicted than in Smith Henderson’s stunning debut novel.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 26th June 2014, 10:00 am
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek, a dark and powerful state-of-the-nation story set in the tough, poverty-stricken US heartlands, delves deep into the mean and murky social margins of American society where tensions simmer and violence is a only a heartbeat away.

Using his experiences as a prison guard and social worker, Henderson whisks us back to his native Montana in the troubled 1980s to explore the complexities of freedom, community, suspicion and anarchy within a nation riven by disturbing contradictions.

Social worker Pete Snow operates out of a shabby office in Tenmile, Montana. His brief is to try to help piece together the broken lives of broken people who inhabit what seems to be an uncaring world.

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Many eke out an existence in homes with no electricity or plumbing, with children they can’t afford to keep and constantly feeding drug or alcohol habits that are draining what little resources they do have.

One of his new cases is Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the wilderness with his profoundly disturbed, survivalist father Jeremiah who doesn’t want help or handouts, and sees Pete as an agent of a Satanic government.

Using courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from the volatile and paranoid Jeremiah who is itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming ‘End Times.’

But Pete’s own life is a bomb site. He has messed up on marriage and fatherhood, he drinks too much, his brother is a fugitive and he has virtually no friends. ‘I take kids away from people like us,’ he tells his ex-wife.

Now his teenage daughter Rachel, who has been taken off to Texas by her good-time-girl mother in search of a better life, has got herself involved in sex, drugs and alcohol.

As Pete’s family problems spin out of control, Jeremiah’s secretive activities spark the full-blown interest of the FBI and Pete finds himself at the centre of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed…

Henderson’s writing style is extraordinary in its scope and energy, juxtaposing prose of soaring, lyrical beauty with the harsh, jagged edge of domestic violence.

Relentlessly probing and mercilessly introspective, Fourth of July Creek asks how far do we go to be our brother’s keeper, where does freedom end and anarchy begin, and can one man’s notion of civilisation be morally superior to his neighbour’s.

Henderson’s ragged cast of characters live mentally and physically impoverished lives… hope for a better future – even delusional hope – is the drug that keeps their heads above a sea of emotional wretchedness and lawless despair.

This is a big, audacious novel full of home truths and harsh realities, an illuminating and utterly enthralling glimpse of society clinging on to its diminished existence by a mere fingertip.

A breathtaking debut from a literary master in the making…

(William Heinemann, hardback, £16.99)