Before I begin my visit with Smith Henderson’s debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, I have a few things to say about the Man Booker Prize Long List. First; since the announcement last year that all those who wrote originally in English and saw publication in Britain would be eligible — as in, Americans would now qualify — I have dreamed of being nominated. I can only assume the panel of judges did not receive my package. In consideration of their egregious oversight, I will now be sending that group of obviously near-illiterates a very different sort of package. I take it, however, in stride, since this is not the first time I have been told I’ve not the qualities required for inclusion on so-called “long-lists”.
But, where the hell was Elizabeth McCracken (click HERE)? Thunderstruck (click HERE) is the very best thing I have read in a very long time (I know, I have not yet written about it – I cannot bring myself to do so for fear of dishonoring its glory with my second-rate thoughts and syntax. I’ll get to it, seriously, somehow, some day.) and its dis-inclusion is beyond my comprehension.
I was hardly the only one annoyed with the list. Simultaneous with the announcement of the nominations began the carping. Its nominees are predominantly white and male. This should not surprise, but, somehow, it does. As the dissection began, I wondered how many LGBT authors were on the list. No one seemed to know. Even as I asked the question, I began to question my question and –one more time — struggle with the issue of privilege and power and my pursuit of both.
I would like to be a published author whose books are read by informed and erudite readers. I would like to have a publisher who submits my novel for consideration to the Man Booker Judging Panel. I would like to belong. But, as always, I struggle with what it means to “belong” and how I have never in my life done so, and how hard I have worked to find value outside of the norm, outside of the predominantly white-male-heterosexist-construct by which culture and society is ruled. So, what was I saying?
I want a Man Booker. I don’t want to CARE about Man Booker, which, coincidentally, just proved itself a tool of the predominantly white-male-heterosexist-construct. But, I do care. And I am upset with myself that I care about a group/award that only included three women and one person of color in its long list. And I’m torn that we are counting and keeping track of whether there is fair representation of all on the list. Who is all? We are tracking gender and color; but did anyone track sexuality? How many transgender people SHOULD BE on the list? Should we track religious philosophies? Age? I mean, we are — as a people — so divided, why was there outrage JUST about gender and color? How about all the other categories? WHERE DOES IT STOP? WHAT IS FAIR? WHAT IS EQUALITY? WHAT IS LEGITIMATE REPRESENTATION?
These concerns are torture to me. As I said yesterday on Twitter to Amanda Nelson of Book Riot (@ImAmandaNelson: click HERE) “I look forward to the day when we don’t need to count anything” (as in gender, sexuality, people of color, etcetera) and “Vigilance is exhausting. Onward to a Utopian future of no judgment for which I shall continue to hope.” But which I do NOT expect to see in my lifetime. Argh.
Now, on to Fourth of July Creek, A Novel, by white male – sexuality unknown to me – author, Smith Henderson, early forties (we mustn’t forget ageism, folks) whose debut novel is one of the summer’s big reads – a 100,000 copy first printing. His prior claim to fame was as co-writer of the Chrysler commercial, Halftime in America, which starred Clint Eastwood and was seen as anti-conservative, pro-President Obama propaganda for the big-three-bailout. I can only hope.
From the publisher’s website, this synopsis:
About the Book
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.
Fourth (I feel as if the book and I, having spent almost 500 pages together, are on a first name basis) hooked me with its seductive first few paragraphs. Listen:
The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt-and-gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla. Through the dirty window, he spotted some blond hair falling, and he hiked in his gut, hoping that the woman in there would be something to have a look at. Which is to say he did not expect what got out: a guy in his late twenties, maybe thirty, pulling on a denim coat against the cold morning air blowing down the mountain, reemerging with paperwork. His brown corduroy pants faded out over his skinny ass, the knees too. He pulled that long hair behind his ears with his free hand and sauntered over.
“Name’s Pete,” the social worker said, tucking the clipboard and manila folder under his arm, shaking the cop’s hand. “We’re usually women,” he added, smiling with an openness that put the cop ill at ease.
The cop just replied with his own name — “Eugene” — took back his hand, and coughed into his fist.
Granted, I have now finished the novel, so, perhaps, on re-reading, the prose comes at me more layered and powerful than when first I read it, but, even then, all that ago — because I did not read this book quickly, it being too beautiful from the start with its low moan of scary foreshadowing of what I was certain would be a long, sad wail of unveiling of inevitable and seemingly unavoidable tragedy — I recognized the depth and precision of each word, the choices in the composition from vocabulary to syntax to punctuation.
Although Fourth takes place during the Reagan era, it is timeless in its brutal emotional exploration of love, disappointment, disenchantment, compromise, surrender, fate, fury, and the ways in which we humans run toward and away from the truths of our lives, of our loves, of our relationships to ourselves, others, and the realities in which we live.
Every character in Fourth is spun around, kicked and cornered by their feelings for others, by the actions of others. Every character in Fourth finds ways to numb-out and dumb-away those feelings and bruises, with mind-altering substances from alcohol to bible-thumping to schizo-alias-hooking-up with virtual strangers. Every character in Fourth is a real person, writ large, with which the author, Mr. Henderson, manages to capture the devolution of modern culture.
Smith Henderson has written a novel in which it is doomsday, in a vernacular of persecution and paranoia and perplexed ambivalence about right, wrong, sin, and service; set in a world where no one is safe or saved, and the best they can do is keep doing, keep going, find a place to fit — or, at least, a milieu in which to hide amongst the like-minded who share a world-view, who will perhaps not embrace them, but, at least, not evict them for being who they are: flawed and failed and foolish and, well, fooled and fallen.
This is a novel that limns the struggle of what it means to belong, to love, to lose, and all the patterns and echoes and unintended consequences we inhabit and create while continuing that trek. It is a wonderful book, powerfully written, well constructed, literary in the best sense — in that it works on many levels, provoking and thoughtful but readable and suspenseful. You will care about the characters, you will compulsively read on in frenzied curiosity about their endings (and their beginnings) and you will feel exhausted and sad when finished.
It is not a book that inspires hope, in fact, it takes place in a world with an almost total absence of hope, a paucity of joy, and love that is always (it seems) distorted, damaging, denied and had it been less well written, less gloriously literate, I would have stopped, unwilling to witness the destruction inchoate in each succeeding chapter; there is not one life inside this book I would want to live, and, sadly, the lives are far too close to the lives many people I know live now — maybe even my own; lives in which there are no expectations of happy ends, where, in fact, “happy end” means an absence of disaster.
Read it, you must, Smith Henderson is a new member of the great American novelist pantheon, and, too, weep, you must and you will, because this great American novel speaks a truth that is a tragedy and all too much the norm now; we have no happy ends and Henderson has gotten it just exactly right.