Fourth of July Creek

Like the body of water in the Montana wilderness that gives this novel its title, Fourth of July Creek wends its way through territory that’s treacherous and beautiful, often both at the same time. It’s not just the deep wooded scenery and mountain vistas that lend Smith Henderson’s stunning debut novel its power, it’s the slippery slopes of damaged human spirits that are breathtaking and heartbreaking.

The story unfolds in the early Reagan years, when antigovernment fervor was more consigned to backwoods redoubts than to the 24-hour scream of cable news. Pete Snow is a social worker covering vast rural areas where the best he can hope for is to bring some aid and comfort to the children of parents who are living on the edge. Not that his help is welcome. Having ditched his unfaithful wife in Texas, leaving behind a daughter of his own, he moved north to grapple with drug addicts, abusers, and garden-variety neglectful idiots. The narrative meanders at times, but Henderson’s immersive, colorful style makes this scenic journey worthwhile. He’s a curious kind of hard-boiled poet — part Raymond Chandler, part Denis Johnson.

All this puts Snow on a path with Benjamin Pearl, an 11-year-old who is dirty, distressed, and dying of scurvy when Snow finds him and his demented, apocalypse-anticipating father, Jeremiah, living off the grid amid the timber. The elder Pearl has caught the FBI’s attention with his paranoid proselytizing, and Pete splits his time between caring for Benjamin and traveling from state to state in search of his own runaway daughter.

The story asks, is it possible to save ourselves by saving others? At one point Snow and the Pearls discover a mysterious menagerie of large animals lying dead beneath remote power lines — a high-voltage wire has come loose, electrocuting all who draw near. It’s a metaphor that resounds throughout Fourth of July Creek: Whether trying to help or merely prey on the fallen, it’s all too easy to go down with them. A