If you haven’t read Smith Henderson’s spectacular debut novel Fourth of July Creek yet, you need to get a jump on it. Not only are you missing out on a book that will seduce you, enthrall you and wrench your heart out, it is THE book that everyone will be talking about this summer and for a long time to come. It is also, incidentally, the best book I’ve read all year and is certainly at the top of my list of favorite books of all time. Yes, it’s that good.
Fourth of July Creek is the gritty, epic tale of social worker Pete Snow and his determination to help a wild young boy, Benjamin Pearl, who appears like a phantom one day out of the mountains of Montana. Through Ben, Pete meets the boy’s father, Jeremiah Pearl, a near-crazed survivalist with a dark past and a desperate desire to confront both the government and God when the end of the world arrives. While cautiously connecting with Jeremiah, Pete is also occupied with protecting the children on his caseload and frantically trying to locate his own missing daughter. Fourth of July Creek reads like a whirlwind, tossing the characters and the reader around like detritus in a storm, but is also achingly tender and rife with jarring moments of unexpected pathos. In short, it is a masterpiece of American literature.
I fell in love with Fourth of July Creek on the first page and was beyond thrilled when Smith Henderson graciously agreed to talk to me about his book. While driving through the mountains of Montana, Henderson responded to my questions over the phone with a candor that I had expected and also greatly appreciated. If we had met in person I would have bought him a beer and tried to get him to talk all afternoon.
I discovered Fourth of July Creek in reading an article about “Grit Lit,” an emerging genre that is rising out of the darkness of modern Southern Gothic and the grittiness of contemporary Westerns. In the past, Henderson points out, Western literature was too “sanitized.” According to Henderson, the reality of the West “has much more blood, sinew and bone” and it is this stark, and often graphic, realism that Henderson so perfectly depicts in his novel. He didn’t want to write about the stoic cowboy; he wanted to write about real characters and portray them as genuinely and sympathetically as possible.
That being said, it is notably his vivid, complex characters that charge the story forward and keep the reader up at night. Henderson admits that his characters could easily have become caricatures- the survivalist religious fanatic, the self-sacrificing social worker with problems of his own- but due to Henderson’s meticulous attention to craft, not once does this idea enter the reader’s mind. Instead, the characters break the barrier of verisimilitude to the point that they are impossible to love without a faltering moment of hate, to hate without a shivering glimpse of love. As Henderson notes, he and his readers feel towards these characters in the same way “you feel about your family.” They become almost too familiar; we see their flaws bared wide open and yet we still love them to death. Henderson’s goal was to write these characters “with as much compassion as possible,” and his achievement is palpable. There is much darkness in Fourth of July Creek, and much suffering, but the immediate and consummate connection with the characters makes it all worthwhile.
Smith Henderson spent a decade writing Fourth of July Creek, (while also, among other things having a family, writing the Emmy-nominated “Halftime in America” Super Bowl commercial and picking up a Pushcart Prize) and his labor of love is evident in every facet of the novel. Whether showcased in the anxiety created and maintained by the book’s structure, the pacing that delicately controls the reader’s emotional journey or the lyrical language and all-encompassing world of the narrative, Henderson is a master craftsman and this maturity makes Fourth of July Creek both a satisfying and thrilling read. As readers, it is everything we want, as writers, everything we want to do. It is a tour de force of classic American writing that reminds of us the power of a story, of a character, and of an author’s narrative vision.