Book review – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

If I had to list my 10 best books of the last year or so, the following would emphatically be on it, probably near the front – Ben Fountain (Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk), Kevin Powers (Yellow Birds) and Philipp Meyer (The Son).

So having not read anything completely transformative in a while I wonder into my local bookstore to have an undirected browse. I pull out a book in the new fiction stack and guess who shouts breathlessly from the front cover? Fountain, Powers and Meyer . Not polite shouts either. Loud, roaring, hot, adamant shouts. Here is a thing, I think. I tend to filter shouts with a good dose of skepticism. But not from these authors. Not all three of them. Not at the same time. So I buy.

Fourth of July Creek is the debut novel by a young US novelist named Smith Henderson. I apologise in advance for what is to follow – a tsunami of superlatives (which is a little embarrassing – reviewers should have more decorum). Language, plot, characters, sense of place, ending, emotional entanglements, interior dialogues, story arcs, unusual and compelling viewpoints (including a recurring set of questions and answers from an unexplained and invisible character, perhaps even the author himself as he made notes to about the story and its characters). The whole lot just folds together like a great complex, beautiful origami, a near perfect combination of linguistic magic and combustive plot.

This book contains harsh stuff, even though gorgeously rendered. The story unfolds in the rural backwaters of Montana in the early 80s around an alcoholic, damaged and despairingly moral social worker named Pete, employed by the Department of Family Services. From amongst his daily horror lists of neglected and abused children, meth or religion-fucked mountain dwellers and trailer trash we follow a number of stories and subplots. A deranged end-of-days fundamentalist and his terrified little boy, forced to move from crevice to cave in freezing and inaccessible mountains while the father waits for the apocalypse, undone by paranoia and the re-living of a scene of a terrible family violence closely witnessed. A damaged and warped teenaged son of a unredeemable crack and meth addict thrown hopelessly into the juvenile detention system, leaving his tiny malnourished sister to the unprotected depredations of her mother and her friends. Pete’s own teenaged daughter, run away and untraceable, lurching unrestrained into big city prostitution, while Pete drinks himself into oblivion to dull the pain. Pete’s divorced wife, mangled into grief and uselessness under cheap religious homilies.

And unexpectedly, amidst the worst of people and circumstances, Henderson manages to rip open rents of courage and humanity and light, illuminating the dark everywhere else, holding this story aloft, keeping it from descending to the cliched places into which a lesser writer would stumble and fall.

This is an unflinching and deeply caring look a world without simple explanations and without neat endings, more hard than soft, more cruel than kind, but it raises itself up to a of a sort of hope, an strange upliftment for the reader even as he averts his eyes.

Make space in your TBR pile. Put this on top.

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