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'Fourth of July Creek' is a gritty, disturbing, evocative, and extraordinary debut novel

Henderson Smith’s tale of suffering and the hope of rescue in the northern West is on this critic’s short list of the year’s best fiction.

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I can’t name the best book I read this year because the candidates are so dissimilar, each one up to its own devices; but I can say which are the five best without setting them against each other. They are Robert Harris’s "An Officer and a Spy," Roz Chast’s "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?," Kevin Birmingham’s "The Most Dangerous Book," Colm Tóibín’s "Nora Webster," and, despite its being so terribly grim, Eimear Mcbride’ "A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing." To this I will add a sixth, a book which escaped me at the time it was published this past summer: Smith Henderson’s first novel, Fourth of July Creek, the story of a number of messy and blighted lives set chiefly in Montana with punishing side trips to Texas, Indiana, and Washington state.

It is 1980 when we meet Pete Snow, a social worker whose territory is a large swath of mountainous northwest Montana, former gold-, silver- and copper-mining country which includes Tenmile, a little town with ten bars. Its dwindling population of 2500 is made up of loggers, mill workers, vermiculite miners, and a scattering of other trades and professions. Pete has been called by the police to the home of one of his hard cases and there he finds both Cecil, the adolescent son of the house, and his mother in handcuffs to prevent them from killing each other, while a little girl huddles terrified in a closet. The ingredients that created this horror are familiar: drugs, joblessness, sexual predation. Not long after he has done what he can do to sort out this mess – nothing satisfactory – he is summoned to the school where a strange boy from the hill country has turned up. Malnourished, suffering intestinal parasites, dressed in filthy makeshift clothing, this pale little creature is unaccustomed to the usages of civilization. He is Benjamin, 11 years old, who lives in the wild with his survivalist, Christian fundamentalist father, Jeremiah Pearl.

Cecil’s and Benjamin’s stories form two of the novel’s main threads, to which is added that of Pete, whose life does not make an orderly contrast to those he serves. Stubborn, reckless, sometimes violent and given to drink, he is the divorced father of a daughter, Rachel, the fourth main character in this novel’s very large, well-drawn cast. She is 13 when we meet her and lives with her hard-drinking mother who, on a doomed impulse, moves to Texas to live with a man who she figures admires her. Rachel, now calling herself Rose, runs away and enters a nightmare life on the road, trading sex for shelter and a desperate form of companionship. We hear from her intermittently throughout the book in the form of catechistic interludes, a series of questions and answers which, while giving us an account of her doings, are, to be honest, an exceedingly puzzling maneuver by the writer.

Recommended: 10 best fiction books of 2014

There is an abundance of story in this book, a great busyness of plot that is woven adeptly into its particular place, time, and people: a thinly populated West and a spiritually, culturally, and materially impoverished underclass. Henderson gives us multiple encounters with neglected and negligent people who, as Pete reflects after being attacked on a house call by a couple of Rottweilers, leave their “dogs lying around like loaded guns.”

As the novel proceeds it evokes the national feeling of its time, the restiveness attendant upon one of America’s great transitions, that is, from the final days of post-war confidence turned sour of the Carter presidency to the cheesy optimism and swagger of the Reagan years. The militarism of law enforcement has begun to take hold – there are some stellar performances from the DEA and ATF in these pages – as has the fiery lunacy of such far-right organizations as Posse Comitatis and neo-Nazi outfits. But it is still, as the novel perfectly conveys, a far less wieldy and knowable America than ours, spanned by highways and troublesome long-distance telephone calls. It is a less monitored one, too, and it is still possible to disappear, to light out, notionally at least, for the territories.

The novel follows Pete across a landscape of mistakes and misfortune, his and others’, as he travels from city to city looking for his daughter, and from rumor to rumor and into the wilderness pursuing Pearl, who, apparently, has a wife and four other children hidden away somewhere. The old man, bearded, filthy, and reeking, sees the world through a paranoid, millenarian lens and has left behind him a train of mutilated coins, tokens of his obsessions: tiny holes punched in presidential heads and altered images that send dark warnings of end times, nuclear devastation, and Zionist conspiracy into the world. There are some truly magnificent vignettes, emblematic of the era and Pearl’s cataclysmic, Old Testament vision. In one case, Pete is told by a logger of a chance and terrifying meeting he had with the young and old Pearl shortly after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in May, 1980, an event which Pearl, isolated from news, assumed was a nuclear attack and that these were the latter days. In another, Pete and the Pearls come across a dreadful, anti-Edenic scene of mayhem and menace:

"The boy stood at the edge of an area no bigger than a patio where the grass had been flat, and on which several dead animals lay in a writhing smoke of flies. There lay a turkey with a parcel of naked black skin near what looked to be the desiccated corpse of a raccoon. Not far away a deer with its throat ripped open lay next to a coyote. The coyote on its side like an exhausted, sleeping dog. Next to it a fox. Strangest of all, the black bear. Flat on its back, legs and arms spread wide, as though it were playing dead or at a kind of profane joke. Huge bluebottle flies worked over everything and the air hummed with them, the air was charged as by a television picture tube with the sound all the way down."

The explanation for the carnage is a downed high-voltage power line, but the scene is made all the more chilling by the perverse hilarity it evokes in the little group as vultures land to prey on the carcasses and are electrocuted with high-voltage flashes and bangs.

As the novel unspools, the reader sees Pete adding to his own woes and creating new ones through drink and cussedness, while trying to solve the problems of others. He is often ineffectual because of the general insolubility of these problems, but at times his own tendency toward evasion is at fault, and, in a one terrible instance, produces an act of betrayal. Pete’s complex, infuriating nature and resulting plot turns, as well as an unexpected element of authorial kindness, make up much of this novel’s strength. Beyond that, Henderson’s powers of description and evocation of landscape, states of mind, and temper of the time are extraordinary, making "Fourth of July Creek" one of the best novels I read all year.

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