So I’ve wanted to read this one for the last few years and I finally got around to it last week, after finding a beautiful first edition hard-cover at Strand. This is Henderson’s first novel, though his short works of fiction have appeared in various esteemed publications, and one of his stories, “Number Stations,” won a Pushcart Prize. Fourth of July Creek received a number of awards and nominations; perhaps most significantly, it was a finalist for the Indie Booksellers Choice Award for debut novels in 2015, ultimately losing to the breakout hit, Andy Weir’s The Martian.
The primary setting for Fourth of July Creek is in and around the little town of Tenmile, Montana, about a four hour drive from Missoula. Though I’ll have a lot to say about plot, character development, and other aspects of the book, I want to first mention the central role that setting plays in the success of this novel. Perhaps the first thing that really drew me in as I read the opening pages was Henderson’s immediate poetic and pristine descriptions of not only the dusty, gritty town of Tenmile, but of the rugged beauty of the wilderness surrounding it. I felt right away quite transported. I loved spending time with our protagonist as he hiked the hills and mountains and drove the potholed backwoods highways of this quiet, gorgeous landscape. In addition to Henderson’s powerful evocation of place, he similarly displays his deft hand at placing his narrative in its particular time. The year is 1980, and the upstart Ronald Reagan is battling the incumbent Jimmy Carter for the presidency, and the conversations in the bars of Tenmile and Missoula are all about this historical moment.
Our protagonist is Pete Snow, a social worker employed by DFS (the Department of Family Services), whose job seems to primarily consist of removing children from unsafe home environments and placing them in temporary foster care. When he’s not working, though, he’s drinking at the local Tenmile watering hole (perfectly rendered by Henderson with all the grizzled characters and props one would expect in such a small-town bar).
In the novel’s first hundred or so pages, we accompany Pete on various of his home visits, where Henderson paints some vivid and nasty pictures of some pretty fucked up domestic scenes, rife with abuse, addiction, abject poverty, deep-seated distrust of outsiders, and all manner of inappropriateness, and Pete manages, even with the somewhat limited authority that his DFS badge provides, and even at times risking physical peril to himself, to rescue some children from these harmful environments. What’s wonderful about Pete as a character is that, on one hand, he’s this “man’s man,” drinking excessively, fighting, kind of a tough guy, but on the other hand, he’s sensitive toward the plight of abused children in bad situations, and he’s tender in his care for them, and he’s a believer in progressive principles, attempting to engage in his community in a positive way.
Furthermore, though the early parts of the novel sort of lead us to perceive of Pete as a single guy and a loner, we learn that he’s married but separated, and that he’s got a young daughter named Rachel, who lives with his wife Beth in Missoula. Pete used to live there with them, until Beth flagrantly cheated on him with another man, which has precipitated their separation and pending divorce.
Once the stage is thus set, Henderson really lets the novel rip. Pete’s called in to help with a severely malnourished young boy named Benjamin Pearl who appears in Tenmile. After he’s patched up a bit, Pete takes Benjamin back home, but it turns out he lives in the wilderness outside of Tenmile with his father, Jeremiah Pearl, his mother, and his siblings. Jeremiah is an almost classic figure, a reclusive mountain man who ekes out his living and provides for his family (to some extent) off the land alone, who has divorced himself from society and rejects its sinful ways. When Pete first encounters Jeremiah, it’s an intense scene, and Jeremiah appears as an aggressively hostile character who does not welcome outsiders intruding into his affairs, even if the intrusion takes the form of charity for his son.
After this point, Henderson splits the narrative and simultaneously develops two concurrent storylines. One involves Pete’s patient but persistent effort to insinuate himself into the world of the Pearls, who it turns out may or may not be involved in some rather sinister, perhaps violent, anti-government activity, and a federal-level manhunt ensues, in which Pete finds himself dangerously entangled. The other involves Pete’s wife Beth suddenly moving from Missoula down to Austin, Texas, and taking his daughter with her, where the parental oversight she’s subjected to is dangerously lacking. Some truly dark and harrowing events occur in young Rachel’s life, and the readers are given small glimpses of these events through small and increasingly disturbing chapters interspersed throughout the novel.
As these two storylines rumble along like freight trains toward their ends, Henderson works his remarkable magic, painting this utterly strained portrait of a man pulled in several directions at once, and torn asunder by love for his daughter, whose plight he can’t seem to manage to save her from. Henderson writes the novel in third-person, so there’s an ostensibly omniscient narrator, but it’s this very intimate kind of third-person, which locks the reader into Pete’s increasingly stressed out but ultimately loveable perspective, all with a kind of stylistic choppiness that amounts, in the end, to a kind of gorgeous poetry.
Now, many reviews of Fourth of July Creek make mention of the opinion that it is in some way an iconic American novel, and I concur, though I’ll admit that I’m not entirely certain why. Jeremiah Pearl seems to represent a lost American paradigmatic figure of sorts, the grizzled mountain man, distrustful of government and society in general, particularly resentful of the fiat currency used in cities, viewing the 1971 decision to remove the dollar from the gold standard as being the deepest of collective American sins. Though Henderson develops Pearl’s character, and his tragic story (both going back in time from the novel’s start, and forward toward its end), with great diligence and detail, there is this shining aura of meaning about him for the reader. He clearly felt to me like an archetype, and it was eminently clear that his story, despite its very meticulously rendered specifics, represents something both generically and vitally American. I’m not even certain how in the world Henderson pulled this off, but it’s a masterful stroke, and all American writers are hereby warned: this guy is on some next-level shit. Furthermore, the plotline around Pete’s daughter and her troubles are quintessentially American in their own right, perhaps even more so. Her travails taking her on the road to various American cities, and her falling in with the wrong crowd, seriously wrong, sadly represents an American tradition of sorts, and speaks volumes about the societal decay that our nation faced in the turbulent decade of the 1980s.
In short, Fourth of July Creek is a deeply, fundamentally, and beautifully American book, definitely a—if not the—great American novel, and you should read it as soon as possible.