Sunday, February 01, 2015

Fourth of July Creek

I started off the new year right with my first book pick. I had read some pretty glowing reviews of Smith Henderson's debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, when it came out, but had kind of forgotten about it until it finally became available as an eBook from my library. It may be a first novel, but it reads like an instant classic -- a gripping story, great characters, and beautifully descriptive language that is lyrical and immediate.
Medallions from the quaking aspen lay about in a golden hoard, blowing up in parade confetti as he drove through them. A few Indian paintbrushes still glowed red like small tissue-paper fires at a grade-school play. Pete felt a homesick sorrow at the little differences, at time itself....The place looked shorn, fussed over like a toy dog.
The protagonist is Pete Snow, a social worker in northwest Montana, whose family life is almost as screwed up as any of the people he serves. The year is 1980 and the Reagan era is dawning. Pete becomes involved with an anti-government fugitive whose young son he is trying to help while also searching for his own runaway teenage daughter. He is an alcoholic and pretty terrible at dealing with his personal relationships, but at bottom, he is a good guy. Henderson brings Pete to life in all his failures, his noble attempts, his personal disasters, and his doggedness in pursuing a job that is mostly grim and thankless.

Henderson has an uncanny knack for capturing a character's inner voice, both adults and children, and his dialogue rips right along, natural and succinct. There are moments of humor and quiet beauty among the many dark corners of this novel as it subtly reveals a great truth -- even the most broken people can sometimes do good.

Finely observed and anchored in a very particular time and place, the novel also has some lovely descriptions of the rugged landscape near the Flathead River and Kalispell. I would place Henderson in the same literary space as Larry Brown and Philip Meyer. It is definitely one of the best first novels I've ever read.

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