Western des­o­la­tion

Sprawl­ing de­but paints a bleak pic­ture of Amer­i­can de­cline

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bob Arm­strong

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 apoc­a­lypse­watch­ers 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.

RE­BECCA CALA­VAN

Fourth of July Creek

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