Once in a while you come across a book that surprises you – maybe because you don’t know much about it, and it turns out to be beautiful and horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Maybe because the language is so provocative, so exact, so unexpected that you end up reading it with the dictionary by your side. And maybe it’s because the author, while being totally original, sends echoes of some of your favorites such as William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy and Russell Banks. Or maybe it’s just damn good storytelling. When you’re lucky – and I was when I decided to pick up Fourth of July Creek – it’s all of the above.
Fourth of July Creek is the story of Pete Snow, a social worker in rural Montana, a man who struggles with society’s demons, but not as mightily as he struggles with his own personal ones. We meet him early on when he is called to deal with a domestic disturbance between a mother and young son. The mother shoots the kid with an air rifle, the kid leaps off the carport and attacks his mother. The two are “tearing at each other like two wet cats in a sack.” While this is going on, according to the cop on the scene, “the neighbors are out on their nice, normal lawns in their bathrobes clutched closed at the neck watching the cop trying to disentangle the two of them, taking it in like a fucking rodeo.”
This is the stuff of which Pete Snow’s life is made. To top it off, his personal life is also in shambles with a father from whom he is estranged, a brother who is a fugitive from the law, a cheating ex-wife and a difficult teenage daughter. Pete is no stoic, and his response to his problems is often as dysfunctional as that of the families he sees.
This is not necessarily an easy story to read, as you follow the adults and the children whose lives they challenge and sometimes destroy. But, oh, the writing is something you don’t come across everyday. Henderson is a man who knows how to craft an image. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite:
(Arriving at a party) A guitar boils out a crude blues through overworked speakers.
(By a campfire) The fire had burned down to white flaky ulnas.
(On taking a woman “somewhere special”) They found their way by his flashlight, and shapes of steam from the hot pools sifted lazily through the wet pines like robed ghosts of a sudatorium.
[In case, like me, "sudatorium" is unfamiliar, it means "a vaulted sweating-room of the Roman baths or thermae." You'll have to look up "thermae" for yourself.]
The central conflict comes when Pete encounters Benjamin, the son of a mountain “survivalist” named Jeremiah Pearl. Trying to help the boy becomes a battle of wits and wills with the father, one that alternates between hostility and manipulation on both sides. There are more than a few ways in which the men – seemingly so different – are alike, and this conflict is one of the most engrossing subplots of this complex and often disturbing novel.
If I haven’t lost you by comparing Henderson to Faulkner, I can tell you that though dark and often disturbing, this story will pull you in and keep you reading to the end. I highly recommend it.