RIP Robert Stone, one of the great American writers of the Vietnam generation. And hello Smith Henderson, who may or may not turn out to have a great career, but is, on the basis of one book, definitely the real deal.
Fourth of July Creek came out last summer, but only made its way into my hands recently. The Times review placed it in the vein of Cormac McCarthy, but despite the writers sharing a few tics - baroque violence, getting a bit carried away with poesy - it's not the best comparison. Fourth of July Creek is big and serious and excessive in the way of a certain kind of 1960s and '70s novel, such as Stone's Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers or Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. Like those books and many others of their era, it's a wide-screen, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vision of a troubled America, seen through the lens of one sympathetic, formerly idealistic, deeply fucked-up guy.
Henderson's novel takes place in 1980, and while there are reasons for that, it could be set today with very little adjustment. Pete Snow is a 31-year-old social worker in remote Tenmile, Montana. He's hard-drinking and depressive, but so would you be if you were the sole representative of the state department of family services in a vast swath of mountain country with rich veins of domestic, alcohol and drug abuse, not to mention unemployment and poverty and isolation. Guns and dangerous dogs are everywhere. Pete has seen some stuff. He has problems of his own too; his father's an asshole, his wife's divorcing him and his teenage daughter hates them all. Also, his brother is a petty crook who beats up his parole officer and splits town, leaving Pete on the receiving end of the young lawman's escalating grudge.
Things get novelistic when Pete takes charge of 11-year-old Benjamin Pearl, who wanders into a local schoolyard one day...for the first time. He has grown up in the woods, a frontier child in a land with no more frontiers. Despairing of the "solutions" he can offer, Pete returns Ben to his father, who turns out to be a survivalist/hermit/visionary/lunatic - an all-American guy, in other words. Jeremiah Pearl is legendary in these parts, especially among the sort of folks who think our paper currency is part of the New World Order, Israel's rise a harbinger of the looming End Times. He keeps his family living off the grid and isn't afraid to aim his rifle at anyone who has a problem with that. But the two men form a wary friendship, Pete at first telling himself that he's simply doing what's best for the boy, keeping the lines of communication open, handing father and son canned food and new clothes. But amid his own miseries, there's something in Pearl's clarity of outlook that appeals to him.
Anyone who's read one of Henderson's forebears knows all this will come to violent grief. And the tensions never lessen much even through 480 pages of Pete's misadventures. These include a new romance and numerous road trips around the western two-thirds of the country in search of his now runaway 14-year-old daughter, whose troubling story we dip into as a kind of counterpoint. Henderson seems to be trying to show us everything that has gone wrong with the West. As with the Stone and Kesey books there are personal and political showdowns, public melees and bedroom struggles, a bit of mourning, an ocean of booze. Drink and drugs and exhaustion and the sheer vastness of the wilderness lead to surreal extremes.
The book shares its flaws with its predecessors, too. Henderson leaves nothing out. Every thread is followed up a box canyon or down a mountainside, into a fever and tremors. There are a couple of episodes, particularly a gratuitous bit of horror involving a downed power line in the wilderness, that seem intended to drive away the casual reader, anyone whose sympathy for Pete is imperfect.
The central mystery of the Pearl family is solved with brilliance, and a ghost-town showdown brings the plot's threads together in tragic perfection. That doesn't stop Henderson from going on to a final destination for Jeremiah and Ben that's less than convincing. The novel is an exhausting and occasionally infuriating trip, but it drags you so far into Pete's world that you'll be days hiking out. And isn't that what a big novel is supposed to do?