Thursday, November 12, 2015

Our Bleak Big Sky: Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek
by Smith Henderson
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds

This is what I remember about Montana in the 1970s. We were at my grandfather’s house in Wichita Falls, Texas, and my father woke me up at four in the morning to go for a drive. We all piled into our forest-green Chevy station wagon and headed north. I was five or six years old, and nobody bothered to tell me where we were going or why. We drove all day, ending up at a small motel outside of Colorado Springs. I got carsick and threw up on the comforter in the hotel room. The next day we did it again, driving to Great Falls, Montana, and I got sick again, and my parents took me to the emergency room, where they looked me over and gave me a lollipop. And then the next day we did it again, driving north to Calgary.

We stopped at the lonesome Montana-Alberta border crossing on the way to Calgary and got out of the car to stretch our legs, and I remember my little-boy annoyance when I couldn’t make the Canadian gumball machine work with an American penny. But what I mostly remember was how empty it all was. It was a flat, featureless prairie with wheat fields in every direction. I had seen the Texas prairie often enough, the vast expanses north of Fort Worth that have long since been colonized by car dealerships and Wal-Mart. I had just seen the Rockies for the first time, high and far and snow-capped in the distance. But this was different. This was stark staring emptiness. This was bleak, as bleak as a landscape could be, with the twin American and Canadian flags the only spots of color against the endless sky.

That was forty years ago and more, and since then I’ve had my bleak moments, same as you. I’ve faced death, and taxes, and the horrible restaurant in Jefferson City, Missouri, that had the audacity to put ketchup on so-called enchiladas. I have seen loved ones suffer. I have cried myself to sleep. I have stepped barefoot on a LEGO brick more than once.

But there is bleakness, and there is real bleakness, and then there is the portrait of Montana in the late 1970s that Smith Henderson paints in Fourth of July Creek. Henderson’s anti-hero, Pete Snow, is a social worker, and if you want a guided tour of the bleak parts of America today, within convenient driving distance, you have only to do a ride-along with a social worker. (I speak here from experience.) Pete Snow works for the state children’s services agency in a remote corner of western Montana and has an unenviable caseload and a disintegrating family.

It is not the actual landscape of Fourth of July Creek that is so bleak; Henderson presents it as a vast and rugged wilderness. It is the moral landscape that’s bleak, starting with Pete’s intervention in a near-murderous fight between a son and his drug-addled mother. Pete gets called on to intervene, and does, but there’s nothing heroic in what he does and at best it’s a stopgap. There are a lot of stopgaps in Pete’s world, a lot of half-measures, and these are not always due to the limited legal and financial and human resources available to him.

It is the imbalance between Pete’s burdens and his abilities that drives the narrative of Fourth of July Creek. If he were able to shoulder all of his burdens successfully, the book would be too dull. If he were to collapse under them, he would earn the reader’s contempt or at best lose the reader’s attention. Pete is a bit of a sad sack—in a moment of clarity, he tells his estranged wife that it’s his job to take kids away from people like himself—but his saving grace is that he cares, and that he tries. Pete is the kind of person who would drive ten hours all the night through to save you if he thought you were in trouble, and even though he’s weak, even though he’s ineffectual at times, even though he’s kind of a jerk to most people, you have to respect that.

The title refers to a real creek, up in the mountains of western Montana, in an area barely touched by the hand of man. It is the abode of Jeremiah Pearl, a wandering fanatic who has read Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth a bit too closely. (The Late Great Planet Earth scared the hell out of a generation of fundamentalist Christians. It was written the year after I was born, and so far none of the apocalyptic events foretold in Lindsey’s book have come close to happening, but it’s still outselling all of my books. I could cry.) Pearl foresees the coming Armageddon, and hides out with his family in the Montana wilderness, tracked half-heartedly by federal agents. When Pearl’s son wanders into the fictional town where Pete works, Pete becomes the liaison between the Pearl family and the rest of civilization.

In the meantime, Pete’s wife has left him, taking their daughter to a series of sketchy abodes in central Texas. The daughter’s story is told in a set of slightly manic question-and-answer passages appended to most chapters, in which she recounts her own moral bleakness, which deteriorates into a full-scale moral breakdown. Every so often, Pete drops his workload to go haring after his daughter, trying to track her down through the interstices of the social-services archipelago, searching for her in the sad motels and lonely street corners of San Antonio and Indianapolis and Seattle.

To add another layer of complexity, Pete not only has to struggle with his own imploding nuclear family but with his no-account brother and his tyrannical father and his born-again stepmother, and there’s a pack of rowdy old friends and a co-worker with whom he has a physical attachment (you can’t call it a romantic attachment, and you shouldn’t).

Structurally speaking, Fourth of July Creek is kind of a mess. Morally speaking, Fourth of July Creek is a series of utter debacles, resulting in sheer disasters for almost everyone involved. And yet, the book never gets tiresome or aggravating, never succumbs to nihilism or despair. This is almost entirely due to Henderson’s skill and poise. Henderson is a neutral observer here, moved by the beauty of the landscape and unfazed by the ugliness of fate and mischance and bad decision-making by his characters. He’s able to sustain a lyrical tone in depressing circumstances, and capably interjects humor and pathos and suspense where they’re needed.

Fourth of July Creek is a hard book to like and a difficult book to recommend. The quality of the prose is worthy of high praise, especially the vivid description of the Montana wilderness. The characters are handled with respect, even the crazy ones (especially the crazy ones). Henderson never lets up on the tension, to the point where the book can keep you awake nights if you let it.

The only knock on the book is its weakest point, which is its bleakness, its endless vistas of loss and hurt and emptiness. The question the reader needs to ask herself here is, I suppose, how much artificial misery do you want in your life? Most people live with some degree of artificial misery. (This is better than living with real misery—real misery trumps artificial misery, every time.) If you think you have the inner resources to cope with Fourth of July Creek, by all means pick it up. If you’d rather read something more pleasant, you should by all means do that. It’s an excellent book, superbly written, but it can be as dark and harrowing and empty as the worst sleepless, lonely night you ever had.

Curtis Edmonds is the author of two novels, Rain on Your Wedding Day and Wreathed, and the flash fiction collection Lies I Have Told. He lives in central New Jersey and has heard all the jokes.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this take on 'Fourth of July Creek' and I agree, it is a bleak novel. While the bleakness was "artificial," as in literary, I found it very realistic, and I was eager to pass the book on to my dad for his opinion. He'd spent over 25 years as a public school teacher, working in the small ghetto of portable classrooms out on the fringe of the high school where he worked with the frustrated kids, the gangbangers, the teen moms, the neglected. The parents of his students seldom respected his work, often missing appointments, keeping their kids out of school for long unnecessary stretches (or, worse, to hide forms of abuse). He was sometimes threatened by his students and, once, sucker-punched.

    I thought my dad would get a lot out of this book, and he did. Pete's struggles resonated strongly with him. My dad and I both loved the prose and landscape and the bleak absurdity (the frenzied Rottweiler running smack into the side of a shed and knocking itself out cracked us both up). But I think Pete's job was what struck my dad most -- the craziness of persevering with people who didn't give a care how hard you worked, how much good you wanted for them -- how this dogged, unrelenting care was a kind of craziness in itself.