Hike through the wilds of northwest Montana and you’ll find abandoned mining camps, swaths of unspoiled pine forest and pocketed communities of hardy recluses. It’s these pristine and far-removed surroundings that conceal the drama of Smith Henderson’s debut novel, “Fourth of July Creek.” The story’s protagonist, a family social worker named Pete Snow, puts it best: “A lot of folks come up here to get away. I know I did. But most of us just wind up bringing our particular trouble with us.”
Pete’s particular trouble is sundry. He and his wife are on the splits. His brother, after assaulting a parole officer, is on the lam. And to top things off, his 14-year-old daughter has run away. To cope, he turns to two tried-and-true distractions: alcohol and work. Between borderline-heroic benders, Pete helps hardscrabble families inch toward normalcy, even if he can’t seem to save his own.
Despite being set in the early 1980s, the novel’s cultural backdrop feels contemporary. Pete’s neighbors and clients, “most of [whom] lived here because the government was a negligible presence … some even objected to the delivery of mail,” resemble the permaculture hermits and small-government extremists featured on cable news today. But the persistence of this rugged fringe in American culture only speaks to the skeptical individualism that cascades through our national identity and hints at our literature’s enduring fascination with those who choose it over conformity.
The Pearls are one such family. While everything tumbles out of Pete’s life, 11-year-old Benjamin Pearl wanders into it. He’s a child of religious homesteaders squatting in the hills, waiting out the End Times. When Pete returns Ben to their patriarch, Jeremiah, he becomes inextricably involved in the eccentric man’s struggle to save his own family without sacrificing their freedom or beliefs. This is a struggle that is advancing toward all-out war, and a struggle that keenly resonates with Pete.
His runaway daughter, Rose, a self-described “frozen flower,” appears in a series of short interviews in which she fills in the blanks of her absence, a checkered journey through the American West and her early adolescence. These intermittent passages are refreshing, and Rose’s perspective is a welcome yet differently sad counterpoint to her father’s bar stool melancholy.
At times, Henderson staggers into hedonistic reverie while chronicling Pete’s reckless desperation. Binges, black eyes and bodily fluids are described in lurid, triumphant detail, occasionally tainting the book’s remarkable plot and well-paced prose with unnecessary titillation.
But a bit of salacious distraction doesn’t steal the force from this action-packed novel, at its core a story of families finding their small corners of the frayed and threadbare American fabric, and the ends they’ll go to protect them.
Will Wlizlo is a writer living in Minneapolis.