In this stunning debut novel from Portland author Smith Henderson, "Fourth of July Creek" takes readers into the shadow of the Rockies, where social worker Pete Snow tries desperately to help a family who has lost itself in the wilds of rural Montana. The epigraph, a quote from Henry David Thoreau, reads, "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." Indeed, despite his intentions, Pete Snow is as troubled as the people he serves. Drunken binges, a fractured relationship with his estranged daughter, and a penchant for making bad choices for good reasons has left his life in shambles. When he's called in to take charge of Benjamin Pearl, a feral child found on a school playground, Pete finds himself caught up in the near-apocalyptic existence of the boy's survivalist, paranoid and fundamentalist Christian father, whose attempts at anti-government activism have long perplexed locals.
In keeping with his literary forebears (Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner come immediately to mind), Henderson has added to the conversation ongoing by authors of the West like Peter Heller ("The Dog Stars" and "The Painter"), where broken men journey toward a moment of redemption, via the bosom of nature. This "western gothic" style is rife with a grotesquerie of dysfunctional characters: drug-addled welfare mothers, hillbilly berserkers, and the children who suffer in the space between them. And yet for all its bleakness, Henderson manages to offer unexpected moments of grace. Pete Snow struggles to relate to Jeremiah Pearl, the feral boy's father, whose broken heart has poisoned his mind. "The man is burned through, cauterized, a scar, and for all that, familiar as whatever it is Pete sees in any mirror. Pearl is Snow is himself is everyone." What works here—powerful descriptions, pitiless characterization, and an unsentimental yet masterful weaving together of time and place—is working very, very well. Though some might argue that it drags on a bit longer than it needs to, the scale of the novel certainly fits the depth of its characters and their troubles. At times, the prose feels a bit strangled, "chromed long-haulers glinted like showgirls among logging trucks caked in oatmealy mud, white exhaust thrashing flame-like in the wind from their silvery stacks." But the consistency of tone and effect throughout is quite convincing (it's no wonder it took Henderson 10 years to write). In a series of poignant vignettes that intersect Snow's narrative, an unseen entity interviews his daughter Rachel, whose story runs in parallel harmony to her father's. The result is a languid, exquisitely painful and gorgeously drawn book that refuses to answer its own questions (What good is it to be good?). "Fourth of July Creek" is an impressive debut from a young Northwest author to look out for.