We’re in Montana, during the Reagan era.
Pete does social work in an under-populated area. O, the burdens of the flawed but well-meaning social worker! In one case, a woman, Debbie, rapes her own son, Cecil, then tries to get him removed from her home. Meanwhile, Cecil molests a dog and provokes fights. In a later case, a couple seems to have chosen to raise two small kids in a hut. And in a third case, the case of Jeremiah Pearl, all chaos breaks loose.
Here’s the Pearl story. Long ago, Jeremiah married a woman who took the name of Sarah, and the two became increasingly nutty. They divorced themselves from society. They had way too many kids. Some misguided research led them to conclude that the Holocaust hadn’t really happened, and that all money is silly and unworthy of a thinking person’s time.
Now, Sarah and all but one of her kids has gone missing. Are they in Alaska? Are they in a much darker place? Jeremiah hangs out in the woods with the one non-disappearing child, Benjamin, who is small, indomitable, and about as well-drawn and three-dimensional as a character in an Adam Sandler movie.
One day, Benjamin wanders into a school, and Pete takes charge of him. As Pete learns more and more about Ben’s shady domestic situation, Pete begins to worry that the Pearl father-and-son team might do some major world-historical damage. There are rumors that these two disturbed folks have attempted murders. And Jeremiah has a distressing habit of talking very earnestly about the Apocalypse.
We haven’t even addressed another major subplot in this story. Pete’s weak ex-wife, Beth, has decided to decamp to Texas with Pete and Beth’s barely-pubescent daughter, Rachel. Beth is a mess. She can’t keep an eye on her kid. Beth brings in party guests who irritate and—in at least one case—attempt to assault Rachel. Eventually, Rachel runs away and begins a long odyssey that culminates in some Seattle-based prostitution. Beth and Pete go insane with grief and surges of guilt, and their efforts to find Rachel are—at least for a great while—fruitless.
Then there’s the drama surrounding Pete’s traumatic childhood, with a nasty father and a ne’er-do-well brother. The brother runs afoul of the law and goes on the lam, and his patrol officer, Wes, starts harassing Pete. (By the way, it’s a cliché that children from troubled homes often go into “helping professions”, such as
social work and education. Despite the cliché status, this news still sometimes surprises people. The idea is that, if you grew up in an emotionally and/or physically unsafe home, you often develop a good deal of compassion for others who are suffering. And then you find a way to get paid for that compassion. This theme is explored in the movie Short Term 12, which has a fair amount of intellectual overlap with Fourth of July Creek. But Short Term 12 does its storytelling in a better, more rounded, more plausible way.)
Can you sense that I sort of disliked aspects of this novel? Well, let me take a step back. The story carries a huge load of ambition, and carries it with intermittent grace and conviction. Pete’s struggle has some of the richness of the stories of addled antiheroes we’ve come to love on TV. Some genuine, well-plotted shocks occur. One involves Pete’s unreliable girlfriend. Another involves the behavior of Cecil, the victim of maternal rape. In these moments, the author, Smith Henderson, reminds us that human beings are sometimes unpredictable, and that there is sometimes, if not often, a gap between a real person’s declarations and his or her actions.
Okay. Now let me get to my reservations. Note that the critic Mary Gaitskill once tore into a novel by a well-respected novelist. The novel in question was Cockroach, by Rawi Hage, and the review appeared in The New York Times on 15 November 2009 (“Angels and Insects”). Gaitskill ended her review memorably, by thinking about the many people who had given Hage glowing praise. “I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who has responded to Hage’s work has done so insincerely,” wrote Gaitskill. “But when I see it being compared to Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Genet, Rimbaud and Burroughs — I can’t imagine that anyone with a mind believes that. In making such overblown comparisons, these ‘admiring’ critics have respected Rawi Hage far less than I have.”
Yes! It’s an act of respect to demand a great deal from a writer. And so I am going to make big demands on the widely-over-praised Smith Henderson—demands that he has not met in his debut novel. And I sincerely hope he reads my thoughts.
Fourth of July Creek is way too long. The story could have been told in half the space. Henderson spells out far too much, showing a lack of faith in his readers. When the prose becomes windy, the reader is inclined to stop paying close attention, because he or she feels fairly certain that whatever has been missed is of minimal value or will be reiterated several times.
A small amount of lyricism goes a long, long way. There should be a ban on the verb “regard”, as fun as it is to type. It’s a needlessly fancy way of saying “look at”, and it appears much too frequently in Henderson’s prose. At times, I considered keeping a “regard” tally in the back of the book.
A fun little play on words does not need to recur ad nauseam throughout a novel. At one point, Pete’s daughter imagines that “wyom” is a verb, and that people who are drifting through life are merely “wyoming”. That’s enjoyable when it first appears on the page, but the fifth or sixth self-reference loses some of its charm.
Another thing I noticed in this novel, and I’m on the fence about this: Very rarely, if ever, does a character respond to music, a work of art, or a book or movie he or she has been thinking about. For many people, from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds, music, art, and related fields provide a bit of light. It struck me that not one of the characters in Henderson’s work derives any kind of consistent value from even a mild humanist or artistic pursuit. There’s just a ton of drinking and copulating when free time arises. For me at least, that made the approximately 500 pages of text slightly oppressive.
By contrast, Short Term 12 shows its social-worker characters and patients engaged in drawing, writing, debating, and singing. Their lives are quite difficult, but they find time to let some light in. Smith’s own world has a certain intellectual airlessness that becomes tiresome, not to mention implausible.
Lastly, Henderson needs to spend more time with small kids, or at least think more deeply about how he depicts them. As I mentioned above, Benjamin is a caricature. The same goes for a little girl named Katie. Both children seem angelic, and also seem placed on the page mainly to reassure us that Pete is a decent guy. (Look! The little kids love him; he must be A-OK!)
Actual children are neither demons nor angels. Many of them have a great deal to say. Their speech can be mesmerizing. (Investigate the fiction of Anne Enright, if you want to remind yourself how some real kids form sentences.) By putting his two little-kid characters on pedestals, Henderson does them a disservice as great as if he had made them into unrepentant brats.
Oh, actually, one more thing: No more concluding of novels mid-sentence, please! It seems to be short-hand—a way of saying, “I’m reaching for profundity here—without reaching effort-fully.” It’s like when all those figure-skating duos chose to end their performances with fake deaths.
As for the aforementioned review in the New York Times, “Caseworker, Into the Woods“, Janet Maslin states, “Fourth of July Creek is a Rorschach test of sorts. It may remind readers of many different writers, even though it’s such an original.” Alas, I don’t see it as much of an original. In its depiction of small children, it calls to mind clichéd works such as the old TV show, Full House, and Disney’s The Lion King.