The first few pages of Fourth of July Creek, a novel by Smith Henderson, quickly set up a kind of high concept premise: a young man with long hair — a social worker, a bleeding heart — squares off against a police officer, eager to mete out justice, as the two debate the future of a poor family in trouble.
The rest of the novel’s pages set about complicating and muddying that premise.
Set in Montana during a time when it was “morning in America,” Fourth of July Creek follows Pete Snow, the social worker who appears at first to be a proxy for the Fordist liberalism that Reagan was just starting to dismantle at the time. That role actually belongs to a minor character though, a court judge, who literally sobs into his drink when he hears the news that the Gipper has been elected to the presidency.
But Snow has more immediate and more complicated problems. His is a Sisyphean task, trying to help a motley crew of characters who come from broken homes and traumatic pasts, but also navigating the inadequacies of the system that he, and us, wish so hard would work better. At the same time, he encounters the novel’s big baddie: an anti-government extremist named Jeremiah Pearl. Pearl is modeled after right wing paranoiacs like Ted Kaczynski and Randy Weaver, spiritual ancestors to today’s Cliven Bundy and, well, let’s face it, most of the Tea Party.
Others have compared Smith Henderson’s writing to Cormac McCarthy, and the comparison is apt because Henderson’s world is gritty, full of drugs, and violence. This is serious fiction, albeit a seriously explicit and grimy variety. Still, like the best literary fiction, Henderson wants to complicate the line between good and evil. He seeks to understand his characters, no matter how misled, depraved, violent, or selfish. Henderson’s nihilism veers closely towards exploitation but is ultimately redeemed by his empathy.
All of which is to say, maybe Pearl isn’t the bad guy. And maybe, on the other hand, Snow isn’t so great. Besides trying to figure out how to get Pearl’s son out of his militia-man father’s care and into better custody, Snow has his own problems: he’s a drunk, his wife has left him, and his daughter has run away. If the men and women in charge of social welfare are just as fallible as you and me, Henderson seems to be asking at times, are they worth keeping in our collective employ? And if not, is Pearl right? Is the contract that creates society, government, and “fiat currency” (Pearl’s particular bane) a hood that’s been pulled over our eyes?
No, I’ve not gone all anarchist, and let me reassure you, Henderson is no Ayn Rand. But his story is effective at getting us to consider alternate points of view. A moment I found most poignant came about halfway through the novel. Snow has been spending time with Pearl, in an attempt to get into the man’s good graces so that he can learn more about him and attempt to save his family. Pearl is a religious fundamentalist. He believes in the end of days, and he speaks about the assassination attempt on Reagan as if it were a signal of the coming of the antichrist. Later, Snow is searching for his missing daughter, and when he and his separated wife Beth have a moment of mutual frustration, they commiserate over the states of their lives. “I’m an alcoholic. […] You’re an alcoholic,” Snow says. “I take kids away from people like us.” Usually combative, Beth meets Snow in exasperation. She acknowledges feeling a “hole inside” and mentions having walked by a church and feeling something, believing that their teenage daughter running away was, just maybe, a sign from God. “Will you go to church with me?” she asks. The question hangs with no affirmation, no derision, and no resolution.
Fourth of July Creek reminds me of an interview Slavoj Zizek did recently with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Fundamentalism is a reaction,” said Zizek, “against a real flaw of liberalism. […T]hose who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.” Zizek sees in the rise of right wing groups in Europe a genuine concern about and response to the world in the era of globalization and neoliberalism. Wrong-headed, and misguided, yes, but by no means irrational.
But Fourth of July Creek also makes me think of the recent song by Hurray for the Riff Raff, “The Body Electric.” The singer asks, “Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s so gone mad?”