Fourth of July Creek

Fourth of July Creek is a big novel (466 pages) about small Western towns and the people—many of them poor and hurting—who live in them. Its main character, oddly for a novel set in Montana, is a social worker, but Pete Snow's job serves the story well, injecting him into the lives of families struggling with addiction, depression and the death of hope, even as his own life threatens to spin out of control. Parallel plots—one involving his runaway teenage daughter, the other a reclusive, Revelations-addled survivalist, Jeremiah Pearl, and his 12-year-old son, Benjamin—enlarge the story, as Smith Henderson explores what it means to be a parent in a world where failure is rampant and society's strictures are as dangerous as the behaviors they abjure. Snow is an alcoholic who's estranged from his druggie wife and daughter—as he says to his ex, “I take kids away from people like us”—but he's got a warm heart, which is why he tries to help the Pearls despite the father's hostility. Henderson's richly earthy but unromantic style is reminiscent of other great Western writers—Cormac McCarthy, Jim Harrison and Wallace Stegner come to mind—and this impressive debut is fitting company with the best of their work.