Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: "Fourth of July Creek" by Smith Henderson

I’m lucky to have it happen at least once a year, and I’m happy to say that it has just happened. While it is too early to tell still, but once a year I read a book that seems to get everything right and reinvigorate the power that I know books can have over a person. This year, that book is Fourth of July Creek, the debut novel of author Smith Henderson. There is so much that I liked about this book and so much to talk about it, I actually went off by myself at friends house during the WWE PPV Battleground just to catch up on it. The feeling I got while reading this book is akin to the first time I read Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, a book I have ranked as one of my favorite books of all time. It has that feeling you get from debut novels every once in awhile where you know, that as you are reading through it, that you are witnessing something special. It is a different kind of beast than American Rust though: it is a little bit longer at 467 pages and takes place in a much different place and time period, with this taking place in Montana during the early 1980’s. But all the things that made American Rust such a special book are here, from the brutal conflicts to the finely drawn, sympathetic characters, all adding up to a transcendent reading experience. The main character is a social worker named Pete Snow, whose work of fixing the lives of neglected children does not reflect his situation at home, separated from his unfaithful wife and rebellious daughter miles away in the small Montana town of Tenmile. Into Pete’s chaotic existence comes a boy named Benjamin Pearl, who lives in the woods with his father Jeremiah Pearl, whose zealotry is legendary in the hills of Montana. Though Benjamin stays with his father after their first meeting, Pete is still shook by the encounter, even as his already crumbling world continues to get worse and worse. I will not spoil all that happens in this novel, because a lot of the major points are like emotional bombshells when you finally get to them, creating an effect that will linger long after you finish the book. Henderson is brilliant at creating a harsh landscape that seems foreign and adversarial to its characters, much like the aforementioned Meyer, as well as older writers like Russell Banks and Richard Russo. Another thing that surprised me was the inherent violence in the novel, just in the action, but in the prose to, which as harsh as the rough terrain Benjamin and Jeremiah as they live their paranoid lives. A lot of the novels deeper feeling remain ambiguous even through the end, but as it says near the novel’s sad yet hopeful end, not everything needs an answer. I hope this book doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of more popular, more accessible debuts this year, because this book is truly unique and undeniably great.

Rating: 5/5

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