Fourth of July Creek marks Smith Henderson’s debut novel, but millions of Americans are already familiar with the former Missoula resident’s work. In 2012, Henderson shared writing credit for the Chrysler commercial starring Clint Eastwood, titled “Halftime in America,” that appeared during the Super Bowl. It became the most talked-about moment of the night as media outlets discussed the power of its patriotic message and political pundits questioned whether Eastwood, a Republican, had somehow shifted his allegiance to President Obama. The Indy reached out to Henderson at the time to talk with the Hellgate and University of Montana graduate about his involvement in the ad, but he politely declined. The ad agency he works for wanted the attention to remain on its client, not some copywriter.
Oh, how things change. The focus is now decidedly on Henderson and his auspicious introduction to the book world. Fourth of July Creek is the biggest release of the summer for his publisher, Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins, with 100,000 copies. Major media outlets have run feature profiles. There’s already talk of a television adaptation. The best part of all this newfound attention: It’s entirely deserved.
Fourth of July Creek crackles with an urgency and depth that presents a rare challenge to the reader: continue turning pages to keep pace with the story, or slow down to fully appreciate passages of elegant prose tackling issues that extend beyond the central plot.
That plot centers on Pete Snow, a social worker solely responsible for covering an impossibly large region of northwest Montana in the early 1980s. He’s good at his job, as evidenced by an opening chapter that has him responding to a pissed off cop playing referee to a strung-out mom and her troubled teenage son, who are about to kill each other.
“The situation was a perfect fucking mess,” writes Henderson. “The situation was the kid climbing up onto the slanted, dented aluminum carport and stomping on the rusted thing like an ape. Just making the whole unsound shelter boom and groan under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him, and the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight. Now the cop was about to shoot the ornery shit off the goddamn thing.
“Then the situation got interesting.”
There’s an air rifle and a chase and a wrestling match and, finally, the cop handcuffing the mom and her son. Pete writes it all down and chats amicably with the cop as if they were telling war stories in a bar. It’s only after all this preamble that Pete asks about the younger daughter whom the cop has clearly missed. She’s hiding in the house.
Fourth of July Creek is at its best when it goes to work with Pete. He visits trailer parks in Kalispell, apartments on the outskirts of the fictional town of Tenmile, where he’s based, and remote cabins throughout the Yaak. His work eventually introduces us to Benjamin Pearl, a malnourished kid who mysteriously wanders into town one day, and his survivalist father, Jeremiah. They live off the grid, somewhere in the woods, and Jeremiah holds grand conspiracy theories that make everything from U.S. currency to Pete’s attempts to help a threat to his family. Pete becomes obsessed with the case, which takes fantastic turns and plays out against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter.
While Pete comes across as the kind of bighearted and grounded social worker you’d want on the job, in reality he, too, is a perfect fucking mess. He’s a drunk who blacks out regularly during benders in Missoula. His brother is on the run from his probation officer. He fights incessantly with his ex-wife. Their 14-year-old daughter hates them. When the daughter disappears, Pete chases her across half the country, at one point so dejected he smokes crack in some roadside motel. If you’re wondering how he keeps his job with all this traveling and debauchery, you’re not alone. Henderson tries to address it—Pete has no supervisor, and even Pete’s surprised when paychecks keep arriving in the mail—but it does become a legitimate nit to pick.
Rest assured, small gaps of logic do little to slow down Fourth of July Creek. Like one of Pete’s binges, the book careens through 467 pages that are beautiful and tragic, poignant and unresolved. Henderson often writes at a haggard pace that makes up for lack of punctuation or complete thoughts with a visceral feeling of being there. The style takes some getting used to, and “there” is often an awfully dark place, but it’s effective as Pete tries to sort out his own troubles so he can address those of his clients.
I read Fourth of July Creek in four intense sittings. The quicker I read, the sooner I realized it was not going to end well, with no bow at the end. There’s too much that needs fixing in Pete’s life and society at large. Yet Henderson succeeds in creating a character and crafting a story that makes you realize this hard fact, but still believe against all reason that goodness can prevail.