Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sprawling debut paints a bleak picture of American decline

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Author Smith Henderson.

REBECCA CALAVAN Enlarge Image

Author Smith Henderson.

When you call your novel Fourth of July Creek you signal to your readers that your canvas is considerably larger than the valley of one western waterway.

This first novel, by the Montana-born former advertising copywriter who wrote the famous Clint Eastwood-voiced Super Bowl ad "Halftime in America," explores the collapse of families and communities in the United States. It's a story of a troubled, alcoholic social worker who attempts to save a boy being brought up by an even more troubled Christian fundamentalist in the mountain wilderness.

It's a big novel, touching on the hollowing-out of working-class America, the inheritance of dysfunction in families, and the rise of armed American insurrectionists (the survivalist is clearly patterned after Randy Weaver, whose son was killed in the Ruby Ridge firefight with federal agents, becoming part of the casus belli of the later Oklahoma City bombers).

It's also an intimate portrait of one family.

Henderson stakes out his turf in the literature of American decline in the first chapter, when Pete Snow, the social-worker protagonist, attends to a deeply disturbed mother and son: "She could be seen around town powdered white and made up in slashes of red around her mouth and blue around her eyes like an abstract of the American flag, some kind of commentary on her country, which of a sort she was."

This happens as Ronald Reagan is becoming president and promising to revitalize America with its fabled frontier spirit. But frontier optimism is a chimera. "A lot of folks come up here to get away," Pete says. "I know I did. But most of us just wind up bringing our particular trouble with us."

Pete tries to help the families he encounters, but is stymied by his caseload, bureaucratic inertia, and the reality that state care is a worse fate for children than staying with neglectful, addicted parents.

Meanwhile, he drinks himself into oblivion, failing to intervene in the looming tragedy facing his own daughter, being brought up by his alcoholic ex-wife.

To say that Fourth of July Creek is a bleak is an understatement. Henderson takes the reader on a tour of street corners and squats, where runaways become addicts, prostitutes and pimps. He shows us the rising militarization of American police, confirming a growing network of apocalypse-watchers in their paranoia.

Pete strikes up a relationship partway though the novel, and things start to look promising -- until we discover the object of his affections is deeply damaged by her upbringing in the foster system.

"She is proof that there is nothing that cannot happen to someone. That the world doesn't need permission, that there is no novel evil it won't embrace."

The harrowing story of Pete's daughter is told through a series of chapters written as if they were a social worker's case notes. That's the kind of writerly touch that distinguishes Henderson -- and others of his generation such as Philipp Meyer (The Son) and Claire Vaye Watkins (Battleborn) -- from someone like Richard Ford, another writer whose work is identified with hardscrabble life in the West.

Henderson's writing is smart, at times playful, sometimes intentionally showy, often catching the mind's eye in a way that renders his rural drunks and wary streetkids as much more than generic types. It's a far cry from Ford's minimalist realism.

Taken together, these writers of the American West turn the image of frontier freedom and virtue on its head, presenting the West as a land of betrayal rather than hope, and contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the ugliness unleashed by its inhabitants.

 

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer who is fascinated by both popular images of the American West.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 8:26 AM CDT: Formatting.

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