Chromed long-haulers glinted like showgirls among logging trucks caked in oatmealy mud, white exhaust thrashing flamelike in the wind from their silvery stacks.
― Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek
Sometimes a book rises up out of nowhere, something unexpected and fresh for all the right reasons, with language so pretty it rolls off the tongue, molding the world around you into something so crisp and haunting it seems exactly like the way things are but at the same time so much more than you’ve ever perceived, like you’ve stepped out of real life and into the prettiest, messiest coloring book you’ve ever seen.
Fourth of July Creek’s story is sad but brilliant, and angry in a way that we all might be a little angry, as we’re all doing our best and sometimes that just doesn’t seem to be enough. Protagonist Pete Snow is far from the stereotypical social worker, a man working in rural Montana and partying out his pain when what he sees gets to be too much. Rather than creating a stereotypically “difficult” protagonist or the opposite, a soft spoken hero, Pete is somewhere in between, reminding us how much of our reality is acted out in places most books, movies, and magazines don’t dare visit.
What I wanted Pete to be, what role I expected him to fulfill in the novel from the start, was so far from where he ended up it was a startling reminder of how individual characters often fail to bloom into full realizations of human strength and failure, greatness and ugliness, all rolled into one.
The local, small high school calls Pete to handle a malnourished and dirty teenager who stumbles upon the grounds, and Pete begins to help this hesitant, wild boy and his father, a paranoid extremist who has seceded from society. Speckling this story is the story of Pete’s daughter, in interview format, and this separate storyline becomes a sort of call and response ode to how simply things go awry, to how easily we make decisions with little understanding of why, and ultimately, to how well we keep going despite it all.
I didn’t think twice when I started Fourth of July Creek–I had no idea what it was about, I just saw the title around a few places and thought I should read it, as my endless struggle to read all the books in the world continues. Right away, this book had me. Smith Henderson’s trawling, plodding use of language is eloquent in a peculiar way which feels true to the Montana country featured in the novel, also feels comfortable. Other reviews compared Henderson’s language, unavoidably, to Cormac McCarthy’s, but this is McCarthy’s country at its most human.
Rather than being overworked with grammatical fireworks, the book’s stunning language is nestled deep and snug within the story, within the pull of strained relationships and a man diving in to save everything or maybe nothing. It is (dare I say?) my best book of the year thus far. Give it a read, I urge you.