Fourth of July Creek

61ksW6tCl3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Fourth of July Creek
Smith Henderson
Published May 27, 2014
470 pages (hardcover)

I have an aunt who is a social worker in Montana. She is, without question, one of the kindest, gentlest people I know. And, after reading this book about a social worker in Montana, I now understand that she is actually a saint.

Pete is Fourth of July Creek’s social-worker protagonist, and he lives and works in the middle of nowhere. When we meet Pete, he’s been called to a house by the cops. The mom (“The mother’s a disaster. Most of her disability goes to speed.”) and her teenage son (“A recreational gas huffer” who has “a good run of priors going”) have been fighting so viciously and violently that the neighbors had to call the police. When the officer arrived, he had to cuff them to restrain them from literally trying to kill each other.

Pete arrives at the scene, takes things under control, convinces the police officer to let everyone off with a warning, and immediately goes to find Katie, a little girl the police officer didn’t even know was in the house. He finds Katie shut in her closet, hiding from the cop and the commotion. When she sees him, she runs to him: 

Katie pressed her head tight against his, and he tried to unclutch her, but she closed her eyes against him, grabbed on of his ears, gripped his neck, and squeezed as hard as she could. Pete stood, the girl affixed to him.

And, thus, Pete saves the day. Pete is a saint, just like my aunt. Right?

Well, not exactly. See, Pete is a little more . . . complex. In addition to being a save-the-day social worker, Pete is also a black-out drunk, separated from his alcoholic, cheating wife. He has a teenage daughter, Rachel, whom he rarely sees and with whom he has a tenuous relationship. His guilt over his relationship with his daughter fuels his attitude toward the kids with whom he works. He finds himself frequently enmeshed in horrible situations, but fails to recognize how much he contributes to these catastrophes.

Rating: 3/5

Like Pete, the book as a whole has a lot going on. It is not singularly focused. There’s the issue of Pete’s own family crises (his cheating wife who decides to move to Texas, his runaway teenage daughter). There’s the issue of Pete’s brother, who’s had some run-ins with the law and has now crossed state lines to hide from his probation officer. There’s the issue of Pete’s new girlfriend, a fellow social worker who was herself shuttled from group home to foster home to group home in her youth, suffering innumerable abuses along the way. There’s the issue of the fighting mom and son that we meet in the first few pages. And, finally, there’s the issue of the Pearls (by far the most interesting part of the book): a religious extremist, paranoid father who has a frightening obsession with numismatics (“Every time there’s a recession someone goes on about it. How the whole game is fixed. How bullets and seeds are the only really real currency. Only, with Pearl, more intense. You can tell he’s brewing trouble the way he talks.”) and his young son, Benjamin, who are squatting in the Montana wilderness. Occasionally, all of these subplots interact and overlap. But, for the most part, they share just one common denominator: Pete.

The writing is labored and intense. There are lots of sentences in which it is clear that Henderson is trying a touch too hard: “Snow falls in white floc like the ashy precipitate of a yonder fire, in discrete spirals and helixes on a haphazardry of vehicles, squad cars, and motorcycles on the way to Fourth of July Creek.” There are endless paragraphs of dense details replete with metaphors (“He turned onto Highway 28 and the clouds quit raining altogether and shortly thereafter broke up like a crowd after a fistfight. He drove into mature afternoon sunshine. The yellow valley slicked and glistening where the haymows stood in the fields like wet yurts.”). The ending (no spoilers, don’t worry) is silly in its affectation. And at 470 pages, the book is obviously way too long (if I were Henderson’s editor, I would have hacked away at 90% of those paragraphs of details).

But that’s not to say the book is all bad (and, considering all of the above, I actually liked it a lot more than I would have thought). There are plenty of great ideas (Pete is a really interesting character, the Pearls’ storyline is excellent and engaging) and the book is emotionally complex (and not at all in a cheesy, pull-at-your-heartstrings kind of way) . . . but the style is definitely not my cup of tea. The book is long, full of angsty, poetic prose, and very character-driven.

The hype:

Who should read it: Joe S. (people who love lyrical writing and emotionally-wrought characters)

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman (the first book in Grossman’s best-selling trilogy; an Amazon Best Book of the Month for August 2009)
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler (the pull quote that Poehler suggests editors will want to use for her book: “I have the Angelina Jolie of vaginas.”)
  • Reunion by Hannah Pittard (a LibraryReads List selection for October 2014)
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