This year has been quite a fantastic year for literature, but specifically debut novels have been finer than usual. High school teacher Matthew Thomas’ first novel We Are Not Ourselves was published in August, after having been worked on for the past 10 years. Thomas sold his debut novel for a stunning $1 million, after a bidding war involving multiple publishing houses. Smith Henderson’s debut novel took a similar route, just one involving less money. His first novel, Fourth of July Creek, is an absolutely breathtaking look at 1980’s backwoods Montana.
Henderson’s story starts out as school officials come upon a feral boy wandering around a playground. The boy, never having been seen at this school before, is quickly referred to social services as he is malnourished and misdressed. Pete Snow, the social worker assigned to the feral boy named Benjamin Pearl, quickly begins to dig into his families issues and whereabouts. In addition to the Pearls, Snow has plenty of other families he is currently working with. When the novel opens he is also dealing with a young boy named Cecil and his sister Katie. Snow is called to their house by the police after Cecil gets into yet another fight with his mother, causing the cops presence. Snow decides the best option for Cecil is that he brings him to a confidants house so he is allowed to spend some time apart from his mother. When Snow returns the Pearl boy to his home in the backwoods, he meets the child’s father, Jeremiah Pearl who is undoubtedly crazier than he is portrayed. A survivalist wearing a tinfoil hat, Jeremiah is an extremely pious individual who trounces through the woods with his son, taking help from no one. Snow does his best by leaving soup cans, clothes and medicine near their campsite, but Jeremiah takes a good while to learn that he can trust Snow.
Fourth of July Creek is easily one of 2014’s best novels and probably one of the best of recent memory. Henderson’s story of a simple man’s struggle with many realistic life trials is a big part of what makes this story so appealing. Throughout the novel, Pete Snow struggles with many things, most of them work related, but it’s the emotional heartache that makes it so relatable. And let’s not discount Henderson’s writing style at all. This might be the biggest draw for a lot of people. Snow blunders along in life, hitting road block after road block, as Henderson tells the story almost matter of factly. Snow’s teenaged daughter also plays a huge role in the story as she tests her fathers limits as a professional and parent dealing with similar issues. Though Snow’s daughter Rachel doesn’t get a voice of her own, almost two thirds of the books chapters are bookended with interviews discussing her life. What starts out as a rather confusing feature to the novel, quickly turns into one of the best narrative devices in recent memory. As the reader traipses through the woods of Montana with Pete Snow, they are also treated to a third person interview about his daughter and her immense struggles.
Fourth of July Creek is a very fine novel. So fine indeed that it will likely be lauded for years at how good of a debut novel it is. If the story itself isn’t compelling enough, the secondary story of Rachel Snow is enough to keep the pages turning. Henderson’s matter-of-factly writing style tells this 1980’s tale like it’s merely an occurrence, but that it shouldn’t be given importance. The characters he’s created struggle with so many things, but you hardly ever hear them complain about their lives. They realized early on that they were dealt and shitty hand and they just play on.