Wednesday, December 7, 2016

FOURTH OF JULY CREEK by Smith Henderson

Pete Snow works for the Department of Family Services in a rural area of Montana during the Reagan era, ministering to fringe elements of society.  He tries to protect Cecil from a mother who cooks meth and sexually abuses her son, as well as Benjamin Pearl whose father Jeremiah expects the apocalypse to arrive at any moment.  Jeremiah’s religious beliefs are so strict that he doesn’t allow Benjamin to enjoy anything that might be construed as a graven image, such as TV.  Jeremiah also eschews currency of any kind and finds that there is a market for coins that he defaces by punching holes in the heads of the depicted Presidents.  While Benjamin and Jeremiah are living off the land as best they can, Pete keeps asking where is the rest of the family, but we readers assume the worst.  Pete himself is no paragon of virtue—an alcoholic whose adulterous, alcoholic wife has fled to Texas with their 13-year-old daughter, Rachel.  Pete is being stalked by his brother’s parole officer, who may be the most dangerous person in the novel, and that is saying a lot, as this has to be one of the darkest, bleakest, most violent novels that I have read lately.  The only characters who seem to be truly virtuous are the Cloninger family, who willingly take in the foster children who Pete manages to wrest from unsafe homes.  The fact that these types of family situations abound in this country in modern times is disturbing, especially since Pete’s options are so limited.  My horror and frustration with these characters and what they realistically represent totally overshadows almost everything else that I may have noticed about the novel.  Even law enforcement characters in the novel shoot or throw punches first and then sweep up the collateral damage.  This world is like a war zone, and it’s hard to distinguish the bad guys from the good—if, in fact, there are any of the latter.

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