In this shattering and iconic American novel, PEN prize-winning writer, Smith Henderson explores the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation's disquieting and violent contradictions.
After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy's profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.
But as Pete's own family spins out of control, Pearl's activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.
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About the Author
Smith Henderson is the author of Fourth of July Creek and lives in California and Montana.
A Conversation with Smith Henderson, Author of Fourth of July Creek
Fourth of July Creek is a novel filled with an overwhelming sense of paranoia, violence, and the limits of American freedom. I'm referring to Pearl family specificallythe characters in your novel live life off the grid and exist in an America that few Americans are familiar withthe Yaak wilderness. Could you discuss how this landscape and isolation played a part in creating these characters and their identity?
My first home was in a little town called Happy's Inn, just south of the Yaak Wilderness. My father was a logger, so the woods were a big part of my early life. Growing up in Western Montana, you have ready exposure to the state's best featuresits mountains, streams, lakes, and forests. It's a place with not a whole lot of economic opportunity (outside of extraction industries), and so people choose to live in Montana in large part because they love the wilderness. The smaller communities. The slower pace of life. The empowering resourcefulness that allows you to hunt and fish and grow your own food.
That said, there's another level of enchantment that overcomes a lot of people, and that's the profound isolation you can achieve. The Yaak especially. It's a rich and rugged ecosystemessentially a rainforestthat isn't easy to live in. There's a certain victory in eking out a life there, especially in the remoter parts. And it has always drawn people who crave, for one reason or another, a life off the gridhippies and libertarians alike. People who distrust the government, popular culture...the general trajectory of modern life. Given the size and scope of our predicaments, you really can't blame people for creating sustainable lives outside of the system. I think we all suffer low-grade disgust with the government or mass media culture.
Creatively, I was very interested in the person who chooses to live in tantalizing proximity to civilization, who needs to be on the edge of society, who in fact wants to feel the conflict. There are, after all, remoter options for pure misanthropes. It's my sense that a lot of people who most fiercely claim their independence want something else entirely: they're actually itching for some kind of fight. This is by no means the orientation of most Montanans or the even most of the people in the Yaak, but among our fellow travelers out West there's a good parcel of revolutionaries. Fourth of July Creek was definitely informed by such people.
You've worked as both a prison guard and a social worker handling troubled youth. How did these experiences contribute to your writing, and the characters that make up this novel?
I was social worker for a few years in a Montana group home and I was prison guard for a hot minute in Texas. The former was edifying if ultimately depressing. I remain in profound awe of people who interact on regular basis with the abused and neglected. The work is as important as it is troubling, and to stay at it you must have a greater ability for self-care than I possess. Part of my research included examining the kinds of secondary trauma that social workers suffer, trauma that I ultimately couldn't handle.
With the prison gig, I was angling to leave the moment we were informed in training that our class was supposed to keep tabs on the senior guards for allowing contraband and illicit activities. A prison snitch is not a job you want, no matter where you sleep. It did come as a surprise to me how easy it was and is to judge and dismiss grown men, to see them as people who've made their bed, so to speak, and forget they were once children, had the promise of youth and all that.
It would be a lie to say I didn't draw upon my work and personal experiences in creating this book, but the stories and characters are entirely fictional. However, the pervading sense of being trappedfrom my own experience spending time with people who had made egregious mistakes that would define them for lifethose haggard psyches...yes, I drew on that feeling, certainly.
Your writing has incredible depththere are moments of humor and lightheartedness in a book that is often very dark and disturbing. Do you find writing the violent scenes difficult, and how do you balance the narrative tension for the reader?
Oh man, every scene has its difficulties. Honestly, I find it harder to come by an honest laugh than deal with the heavier stuff.
I think about violence as an act of nature. A cold wind with a fist. It's a thing that happens to you. Or a thing thateven if you're the one doing itis still some kind of force that takes over. The fallout of violence is sometimes difficult to render. You just be as honest as you can.
Given all the dark matter in Fourth of July Creek, it was absolutely imperative to let some light in. I almost quit the book early on because of the challenges inherent to writing about child abuse and neglect. So many things I learned in my research have no artful expression because they are simply evil, and to portray them would be at best a kind of pornography. So part of the solution to that problem was light. And humor. But beyond that, making sure I saw the characters' dignity.
The other part of the solution was plot, making things happen. There's comfort in reading harsh stuff when it feels as though it's leading to something. I think that's a way to honor the reader, as well. You can't just drop someone into hell and expect them to hang out. A journey through hell...that's something you can bear.
There's a visceral moment in the book when Jeremiah and Benjamin Pearl appear out of the ghostly grey ash, believing it to be the End Times. Could you talk about what significance historical events have in fiction, and how did the idea for this scene come to mind?
When I realized Mt. St. Helens erupted during the period in which my book takes place, that scene just immediately revealed itself. For some reason, we have a great desire for Nature to hit the reset button and wipe most of us out...probably goes back to Noah or further.
As for the uses of history in fiction, I have to say I think the era in which the book is published is just as important as the historical setting of the book. I think it's really interesting, for instance, that True Grit was written in the tumult of the late 1960s. I don't know exactly what it means, but it's fun to think about.
The bulk of this book was written during the Bush presidency, perhaps the peak period of everything that began under Reagan, which was why I set it during the beginning of the 1980s. For me, setting the book at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution was a way of exploring our societal and political context, and this book really is an examination of the deepened red/blue divide in this country. To a certain way of looking at it, the book is the conflict between a right-wing gun nut and a godless alcoholic bureaucrat. My intention wasn't to examine 1980 as much as it was to examine us now. How much have we changed? Where are we now?
Rachel is one of the grittiest, memorable and heartbreaking characters in Fourth of July Creek. Could you discuss your process for developing such a strikingly original and compelling female character, and how she became such a prominent part of the novel?
Almost all of her scenes in the book are in the Q&A form in which I first wrote them. It began as an exercise in exploring her characterwrite a question about her and then an answer itand that form just persisted. I was going to rewrite her sections into typical narration at some point, but the interrogative form accomplished so much that I was after. The sense of doubt and yearning was so much stronger.
Part of what makes her memorable to me is in the inherent and troubling vagueness with which her activities are presented. I still don't know if the answers we get are true, and I find that very satisfying, if I may comment on the book as a reader. This might be the minority opinion, however.
Tell us about your inspiration for Jeremiah Pearldid you do any historical research for his character and was his mentality, identity or motivations based on a real life person?
I wouldn't slander Montana as a place filled with guys like Pearl, but it does seem like the state has more than its fair share of cranks. Honestly, I take a perverse pride in our radical modern outlaws. There's just something in the water. I certainly don't recall being surprised that the Unabomber was holed up near Lincoln or that the Montana Freemen were in a federal standoff.
There's a line in the book about Jeremiah Pearl being the kind of man more likely to appear in the paper than in social work case notes. I remember wanting to write about a character who thinks of himself as a historical figure. Eric Rudolph was an inspiration certainly, as was Randy Weaver and the tragedy that decimated his family. And in research I began to understand the grievances of guys like that, which was important. As much as I loathe what Rudolph or Kaczynski did, it is impossible to dispute that they take their ideas very seriously. These guys just drove me to other sources for inspiration, deeply intelligent cranks like Nietzsche and Thoreau. Jesus at his most radical. Hell, Socrates drank the hemlock rather than let his friends pay his miniscule fine for corrupting the youthhuman history is filled with people who will fight for ideas. I find this commonplace really troubling. We tend to laud such peopleusually because they fight for laudable ideasbut Pearl's interesting ideas lead him to some pretty bad places.
Who have you discovered lately?
I'll read fiction in an obsessive completist way. This year it's been John LeCarré. He's vastly underappreciated in the literary world. It's something of a shame that his work isn't more widely taughtthere is a lot to learn from him.
I'll always have several books in the rotation, for research, pleasure or betterment. I'm currently reading Richard Hell's I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp which is just fantastic. And I've just started Chris Leslie-Hynan's debut, Ride Around Shining which is the best new thing I've read in a long time. I've also got Deliverance by James Dickey, This Town by Mark Leibovich, various histories and bios on my desk and bedside table. I'm a moody reader. I need a lot of options.