Thursday, September 19, 2019

Book 199: Fourth of July Creek

"Regretted saying the word the moment it slipped out of his mouth and they looked at him like he’d broken out in French. Literature. What drugs and literature in the houses in and around Tenmile, Montana. Louis L’Amour and James Michener, and comic books, furled and foxed Penthouses, some marijuana. Popular Mechanics and some truckers’ speed. The Bible, if you were lucky."

Dates read: December 29, 2017- January 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

There's a certain kind of person attracted to life in a rural area. I've never lived in a truly rural area (I grew up in a small town, but it was exurban more than rural), but I live in an area now that's only a short drive from the middle of nowhere, and I've met plenty of people who think of property lines in acres rather than yards. When you go out to the wide-open areas in the West, there's an undeniable thrill to it: the possibility in that remoteness. There's a dark side to it, of course: you're that much farther away from medical or police help if anything bad were to happen, it's harder to make sure you get your trash picked up regularly. There's a reason most of us live relatively near a city, at the end of the day, but there's something appealing in the wildness of off-the-grid.

In the West, especially, there is a not-small portion of the people who live in areas sometimes still officially deemed "frontier" who don't just do it for the excitement of living unplugged and off the land, they do it because they don't really fit in with mainstream life. This is true for Montana social worker Pete Snow, in Smith Henderson's debut novel Fourth of July Creek, but it's even more true for most of his clients. He's already got a pretty full plate between his current caseload and his rocky home life when a young boy wanders into a school, dirty and wildly undernourished. Pete's attempts to help the child, Benjamin, bring him into contact with Benjamin's father, Jeremiah, who lives so deeply off the grid and is so proud that Benjamin's not even allowed to retain the clothes Pete buys to replace the rags he found the boy in. He is, happily, allowed to keep the medicine for his scurvy.

This story forms the borders of the larger narrative. In the meantime, Pete's trying to deal with his unruly clients and his own personal struggles. His brother is on the lam from his parole officer, Pete's got some alcohol issues, and he's recently separated from his wife, who goes to Texas with their teenage daughter, Rachel, to follow a new boyfriend. And then Rachel goes missing, and Pete's desperate to find her. But she's gone, and figuring out what's going on with Benjamin and Jeremiah begins to overwhelmingly dominate his life.

This book is a relentless downer. Nearly everyone involved is damaged and acting out in some way, from the clients all the way up to our protagonist. And not like, in a quirky or reasonably socially adaptive way, but in a very serious Real Problems way. There's a realism to that sort of portrayal that can be appreciated, but the small spots of hope and happiness are very few and far between. I found myself drawn into the central mystery of what was going on with Jeremiah and Benjamin and that family, but most of the characters just made me sad.

On a technical level, Henderson is a very talented writer. His writing was clear and insightful, and while they were depressing, his characters rang very true. My major issue with the book from a craft perspective is that he used a rhetorical device interspersed throughout the book, in which an unidentified interviewer is talking to Rachel about what happened to her. We never know the context in which this dialogue is taking place, which leaves her plotline frustratingly unresolved. If you want to read a well-written book that has a compelling central mystery and don't mind if that book is very bleak, you'll likely enjoy this. I certainly think it was well-crafted and appreciated Henderson's skill, although I don't think I'd say I enjoyed reading it. I'd recommend only to someone that feels up for an unhappy look at life.

One year ago, I was reading: The Luminaries

Two years ago, I was reading: Stay With Me

Three years ago, I was reading: The Professor and the Madman 

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