Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek is set in Montana in the area where my mother was born and raised before she migrated to California. Enough to pull me in right there. It’s gorgeous and mountainous and still relatively isolated even though Whitefish has gone a bit ski-resort-yuppy and prosperous in a not-altogether positive way. Libby and Kalispell are still relatively frontier. However things are today, though, Fourth of July Creek is set around the time of Ronald Reagan’s election and attempted assassination, a wonderful choice on Henderson’s part as I’ll try to show. Let’s start with names. Fourth of July isn’t the only creek in the tale. We have Separation Creek, Thirsty Creek, Freckle Creek, Question Creek as well. So what? A major theme here is isolation and communication, or lack of it. People live in the “hollers” outside the towns in and around these colorfully-named waterways because they are on the outs with society and want to be left alone.There are highways and towns nearby, but much of the book’s action is spent crossing and recrossing these tiny tributaries or walking up and down them. Or driving a car up a dirt road to a gate or a boulder that forces you to walk thereafter. And that means the people that live beyond these barriers are hard to reach. And that’s the way they want it.
This makes problems for protagonist Pete Snow, the area’s only social worker. If he wants to reach and help folks, he’s got to find them and he often has to do it on foot. This is 1980-81, remember. No cell phones. Pete’s the social worker because no one else wants to be assigned to the area and he wants the isolation. He lives in a self-built cabin near the community of Tenmile. He’s the sole representative of officialdom, except for law enforcement, for miles around. And he’s dealing with people who don’t necessarily relish the government assistance he wants to provide. Not that Henderson, when it comes to the novel itself, spends any time with all this elaborate setup. We find it all out little by little. Nope our author jumps us right into things. Pete answers a call about a family disturbance and arrives to find mother and son cuffed by a cop and cussing each other out. The argument that precipitated it all which included physical violence and an air rifle. The cop (or rather Henderson writing a narration that is the content of the cop’s words, but not his words exactly. It’s only one of the rule-breaking activities Henderson uses superbly) describes the scene: The kid standing on the carport, swagging it back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him. . . . Then the situation got interesting. [Suddenly back to direct quotes. Not many writers could get away with this.] “The mother has the air rifle and–“ “No way,” Pete said. [mix of present/past tense masterfully done] “Yeah, fuckin way,” the cop said. [I will note that this expression is anachronistic. People didn’t talk this way in 1980. I was there.] “She shoot him?” “Before I get to her, yeah, she shoots You can see the big old welt on his forearm.” I’ve noted Henderson’s technique here in a kind of teachery way, but the main thing about it is not the tense or quotation marks. It’s the storytelling immediacy. Most authors would step back and summarize the narrative, but we here get the sense of the cop talking without having to hear his every word. Wonderfully done. Pete ends up taking the son away and placing him with a nearby family, and Cecil becomes a major part of the story, but on to other matters. Important as Cecil is, he’s not at the core of things. Pete’s wife has left him, cheated and hit the road with their daughter. Gone all the way to Texas. As he goes about trying to mend other families, his own is in tatters. Daughter Rachel (or Rose, as she prefers) is the another major character. And how does Henderson tell her story? in a manner I’ve never seen before. In the form of an interview that seems to be taking place after the story’s end, with the questions in third person and the answers in a mix of third and first person, so that it sometimes seems that the interview’s taking place with someone else and other times with Rachel herself. Why’d she reach over with her foot and stomp on the gas as she and her mother idled at a light? Because her mother was taking too long. Because she couldn’t stand the way she drove. because she didn’t know why, all right? Because she just always felt now like she needed to go go go everything was taking too long she was missing it all. she was thirteen already and she was missing everything. Everything. The Last piece of the narrative starts with Pete’s attempt to help another family, the Pearls, whose son Benjamin wanders into Tenmile elementary one day and whose poor health and extreme poverty prompts the principal to call social services. Complications that ensue from this encounter turn into a major conflagration that involves every federal law enforcement agency and incidents reminiscent of the Randy Weaver fiasco, Ted Kaczynski and even the Bundy standoff. All of which play right into he sort of independent cowboy individualism that Reagan so promoted whether the situation called for it or not.
How much of this ripped-from-the-headlines synchronicity Henderson intended I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. The story speaks for itself on questions of well-meaning and ill-intended government attempts to bring order to chaos. “Why don’t you do what I want instead of what you think is good for me?” says Benjamin Pearl’s father at one point. And for a moment you might become a libertarian survivalist. But if so, you recover as events proceed. The story carries us all over the western U.S.–Missoula, San Antonio, Seattle, Portland–and even back to Indianapolis as Pete searches for his daughter who becomes a runaway. We’re in on most of her moves via the “interviews” described above. Inevitably, though, we return to Tenmile just as Pete must return to what we discover is an alcoholic self. Sober he’s a virtuous hero, even a gallant rebel against the very system that employs him. Drunk he ranges from comic to disgusting. Quite a challenge Henderson’s given himself to create a protagonist of this complexity and keep him sympathetic. I’m so very glad he did because this is one sensational novel.