Sexual deviancy came as little surprise anymore. Nymphomania, satyriasis, pedophilia, coprophilia, telephone scatologia – there wasn't a particular paraphiliac that hadn't crossed Pete's path at one time or another. He'd worked with a six-year-old girl who'd been so sexualized that she would grab at passing groins, grope and cop feels like a brazen pervert, and could never be left alone with other children.
At first, he was shocked to discover whole rings of kids who practically orgied in group homes and psych wards, doubly shocked to find out how uncommon it wasn't. There were kids he worked with who'd routinely been molested by parents, teachers, and staff at various institutions, as if some dark chaperone escorted them from consort to consort. He'd worked with panty thieves, serial peepers, and Lolitas who found and fucked Humbert upon Humbert on the way to school. Not a few of them touching him on the leg, trying to tongue his ear. (Ch. 7, p. 81, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Social work and its satellite professions so easily can wreak havoc on a human soul. The ideal of helping a "troubled youth" find his or her path in life, of "rescuing" them from abusive relationships or from substance abuse is such a noble idea that its siren's call lures so many idealistic people to perdition. Few are prepared for the long hours for little pay, the tongue-lashings and beatings that angry adults (and some children) unleash on those sent to "help" them. The events they witness can crush a spirit like a gnat: starved children chained to beds; girls (and occasionally boys) forced to be their father's (and sometimes mother's) sex slave; cut and burn marks on their bodies; children grabbing at their genitals, promising sex in return for a morsel or a bauble. The institutions are often even worse, with boys and girls alike being abused, sometimes sexually, at the whims of those who have suffered such maltreatment themselves. Betrayal lurks behind every confidence, every expression of the desire to escape. Escape, to what? The smoke of a bong, the drawn-out coke lines, the cooked teaspoon of smack? How can those who seek to better the lives of others endure witnessing such depravities while coming to realize that they are largely helpless in the face of such monstrosities?
In Smith Henderson's debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, a 1980s Montana state social worker, Pete, has to confront these sordid realities. Traveling across a state filled with those who seek their distance from any hint of the government, Pete is daily confronted with scenes such as the one that occurs at the beginning of the book, where a teen boy has to be separated from his mother before one of them kills the other in front of others. There are no "redeemers" or "redeemed" in this world, just a society full of flawed people, blindly groping their way through their drug- or alcohol-induced haze to find something, anything, that will numb the pain of their everyday life.
No, actually there is a bit more to this taking place in Fourth of July Creek. Henderson also shows how even Pete himself, a divorced father whose fourteen-year-old daughter has run away, suffers from the general malaise that has gripped the lives of those with whom he has come in contact. As he tries, often failing, to "save" the lives of those around him, is it in part due to wanting to redress the harm he feels he has caused his daughter? What about those whose idea of "saving" comes not from human agency but from a firm belief in the apocalypse?
These questions set up the main conflicts in Fourth of July Creek. Pete's case load brings him in contact with a religious visionary-hermit, Jeremiah Pearl, and his son, Ben. As he works to protect the son, he comes to know, all-too-closely, the father. Henderson sets up these scenes very carefully, slowly developing their characters while furthering that of Pete. And in the midst of these chapters are interludes from another lost soul, the one who perhaps burns Pete the most to reflect. Her tale, told in short Q&A-style interview segments, serves as a thematic complement to the larger ones unfolding within the Pete/Pearls narrative arc.
Henderson's mixture of direct, plain-spoken Montanan talk with deep, penetrating analyses of his characters' motivations creates a riveting text that is lyrical without being poetic, brutal without descending into graphic suffering. Pete's motivations for continuing to work in a profession that has left him divorced and drinking to forget the pain of his daughter running away are illustrated superbly. Likewise, the Pearls are not treated as whackos or delusional crackpots, but instead as caring, humane people in their own right and way. Henderson's ability to create dynamic, realistic characters makes the unfolding action all the richer for the motivations being not just comprehensible but also sympathetic for the reader. This mixture of rough, tough, yet occasionally sensitive souls reminds me most of the characters in Donald Ray Pollock's fictions, but there are also strands of Cormac McCarthy's juxtapositions of human and nature, of fate and free will, within these characters. This is not to say that Henderson is derivative in any shape or fashion of these two writers, but instead that each of them brushes against certain societal touchstones that make their sometimes violent tales not just palatable, but something to which we all can relate. Fourth of July Creek is truly a powerful debut, one that hopefully signals the rise of another strong voice in American literature. Very highly recommended.