Book of the Week: Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson

I read this book in February and it’s still taking up a lot of space in my head. It’s a gorgeous, brutal, beautiful debut about everything life takes from us and everything it takes to stay human. The language is exquisite, the plot is haunting, and the characters unforgettable thanks to the deep empathy Henderson has for his characters.

It’s the story of social worker Pete Snow, paranoid survivalist Jeremiah Pearl, and Pearl’s son Benjamin. Set against the background of rural Montana in the 1970’s the book quickly becomes both very intimate story about the damaged lives if individuals and a larger story about the clash of different kinds of America on what’s left of the frontier. Plot-wise, let’s just say that the title isn’t random.

This book is a heartbreaker—the kind of novel booksellers write me about as soon as they’re finished and before they’ve thought up their more professional Indie Next comments. In fact, here’s the sort of initial off-the-cuff feedback I got:

I finally had time this past weekend to finish the last 60 pages.  I was bawling at the end.  Love this book.  This will certainly be my staff rec for June and will probably be my favorite book this year.”  [It also ended up as a pick for the store’s First Editions Club.]
— Karen Hayes, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

“I’m stunned that Fourth of July Creek is a debut novel. Henderson has astonishing control of the language and subject matter. I can’t say enough about it.”–Tammy Glenn-Allen

“Man, this book leaves you feeling like your top layer of skin has been removed and exposed to the wind.”
–Jessie Martin, Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI

Kim Fox at Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, MI best captures the alchemy of the book: “Wow. It’s like a catalog of all the bad, messed up things people can do to each other, and yet you come out the other side with, if not exactly hope, then an earnest desire to focus on and magnify the little bit of good that you can find in the world.”

Perhaps the secret to what makes such a dark story ultimately a graceful experience is the author’s bone deep empathy for every one of his broken, flawed and struggling characters. It’s a soul-touching book.

Fourth of July Creek has already been slated for review in the NYTBR. It has been chosen as a June Indie Next Pick, a B&N Discover selection and an Indies Introduce pick. Library Journal highlighted it as a key summer title and called it “significant debut.”

“This book left me awestruck; a stunning debut which reads like the work of a writer at the height of his power. Begins with the story of one struggling man and his family and soon seems to encompass and address all of modern America’s problems. Fourth of July Creek is a masterful achievement.”
—Philipp Meyer, author of The Son

 Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek is an astonishing read. The writing is energetic and precise. The story is enthralling. Henderson has a mastery of scale that allows this particular place and these particular people to illuminate who we are as Americans, and the consequences of the complex project that has become our nation. I could not recommend this book more highly.”
—Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds

 “As his own life unravels, Pete struggles to bring Jeremiah and his son, Ben, back to society and to find out what has become of the rest of the Pearl children and their mother. This is a debut novel that in no way feels like one. The writing has a rawness to it that will leave you drained, and at the same time looking forward to seeing what Smith Henderson will do next.
–Jessie Martin, Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI

His aptly named novel might not be the country we want to see, but it is the one he convincingly shows us that we have. The U.S., and particularly the West, is ‘peopled with old Scots and Germans who stiffly stood in their canvas and gingham, in wind-blasted straw hair and dun hats like people hewn from wood… yet many had come to novel ends, death by dynamite by rope by fevers by horse by broken hearts by suicide.’ In this remarkable first novel, modern America is a hard place that only kindness and empathy can make easier.
–Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan. In Shelf Awareness

“When I finished Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, I let out a long slow breath.  I hadn’t realized I’d been holding it.  It’s a book about America…. While he never becomes a monster like so many of his clients, our CPS agent [Pete Snow] is no angel; he drinks far too much, doesn’t trust women, and his own daughter falls prey to the kind of evil he rails against in his work.  Still, he tries to help the world, tries to save even one kid and get them out of the system.  After pages and pages of horror and infection, he finds a sort of redemption, and, oddly, that’s how the book left me feeling….The writing of the book is brutal grit-lit, reminding me of Winter’s Bone or American Rust.  Though the ‘narrative’ ebbs back and forth, seemingly directionless as the tide, it ends up being just perfect.  There’s a balance there, and though, sadly and truthfully, the scales more often fall on the side of the people harming others, sometimes it tilts enough to the side of good that it makes up for everything else.  Perhaps that is what Henderson is saying.  We all need to tilt the scales a bit more.”
— Bill Carl, The Booksellers on Fountain Square, Cincinnati, Ohio

Fourth of July Creek (9780062286444) by Smith Henderson. $26.99 hardcover. 5/27/14 on sale.

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