Fourth of July Creek: A Novel by Smith Henderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”He was frightened for her and what was about to happen to her and felt the fullest burden of the fact that he was indeed a thing that had happened to her too and was happening to her yet and would be for a long time to come.”
Pete Snow is a good man, despite that fact, he is in the vortex of a tornado. Those close to him are flung far and wide, battered and bruised by the briefest of contact. His relationship to his larger than life father is nearly nonexistent. When his father dies he learns of it when people start offering him condolences. His brother has recently whacked the crap out of his parole officer and is on the lam. His wife sleeps with someone, purposeful, with the intent of watching Pete walk out the door. His daughter is on the verge of womanhood with a slutty mother as a role model and a father more interested in saving other people’s kids than his own. It is tragic to watch a man who wants to do so much good creating so much havoc.
There is also Cecil, a teenager Pete is trying to help out of a bad situation, but ends up lying to him in the course of trying to help him. Pete persuaded him to trust him, no easy task, and then threw it all away at the very moment he had a chance to save him. Sometimes we get expeditious when we need to slow down. We need to take the time to convince rather than be deceitful. Unfortunately life just throws too much crap through the fan for us to always do the right thing. We make mistakes.
And then there is Pearl and his son Benjamin. When Benjamin stumbles into town undernourished and in tattered clothes Pete has a kid where the needs are so obvious even he can’t screw it up or can he?
Let’s circle back around to the wife Beth.
”The loose beauty about her--the way her smile cracked across her face, her wide lopsided curls rigged into a bun that seemed liable to topple down--reminded him of a tooth about to come out, a button about to fall off. Everything about her always on the verge of falling down or out. Made a body want to screw her heart out. Even now. Even after she’d cheated on him and even though it still hurt like a purple bruise, he could see falling into bed with her. Just a look at her. The beer, eyebrow cocked, her condescending grin.
She said his name plain. Even that ached.”
Beth is the type of woman a man wants to be in the backseat with, beer breath making a plume every time tongues touch, rollicking down country roads hearing the gravel pinging in the wheel wells, and your heart beating like a loose ball bearing in your chest. ”The whole backseat a rolling cart of near to fuck.” She will make you forget yourself, stomping on your compass in the process. She will knock your center askew, permanently, from true North. She will make you batshit crazy.
Pete’s not that dissimilar, maybe just the male version. He still goes out with buddies when he needs to forget, gets drunk, ends up with women he wouldn’t give a second look to if he were sober. His father was a force of nature in the county, ruling without holding office, and casting an umbrella of protection around his sons that evaporates the moment he breathes his last. There is a whiff of landed gentry about Pete even though he tries his best to cast off any association with his own name. He expects women to want to sleep with him, and generally they do. As a social worker doors open for him that may have as much to do with his last name as it does with his own persistence. He denies who he is; and yet, he can’t be who he is without the father he had. One of those conundrums...most of us have them to varying degrees.
His wife moves to Texas taking their daughter Rachel with them. Pete is too passive, letting it all happen. It is only after they are truly gone that he starts to get an inkling of what he just gave up. His wife moves in with a trucker. Anybody ever heard of the expression ass, grass or gas nobody rides for free? Well I’ll let you decide which one Beth provides. The problem is Rachel is blossoming, just turned fourteen, and the revolving door of men that come through the house start to pay more attention to her than they do to Beth.
Rachel feels the power.
She also knows something critically important about her mom.
”Because her mother’s heart was wyoming, it was wyoming hard and she was days and years and maybe forever from a good man.”
Pete picks up with Mary, a fellow social worker and product of the system. She spent most of her life in foster care and bears the scars…”He reached across the table and got her wrist. A pair of hairline scars there too. He rubbed the groove they made. He didn’t think at all about why she’d done that. It was the past.” Pete is too worried about the present and not keeping an eye on the rearview mirror where the past is coming up fast. If the past is not dealt with and placed in a box wrapped in ribbon and notated with lessons learned then it is still just knocking around in your brain waiting for a new place to land.
It all lands hard when Rachel runs away from home.
Rachel picks up with a man, a boy really, playing pimp with dyed black hair and a penchant for manipulations. She gets busted doing something she thought was impossible to contemplate.
No. She volunteered nothing but her name. Rose Snow. She was a whore. Did they get it? They could put her in jail for all she cared. They could go ahead and shoot her in the head.
Pete finds Rachel/Rose just to lose her again. He sees enough of her to see the stark reality of his own failures. He ran a race with his daughter, but he took too many detours, and by the time he caught up with her she was past the tape and beyond him.
Pete Snow is a good man. I rode in the passenger seat with him for 467 pages through the Big Sky country of Montana, to the dusty plains of Texas and through the rain soaked city streets of Portland. I can attest to the fact that he is a good man, flawed, sometimes tilting at windmills, but ultimately trying to make a difference. Protocol becomes a harness that when it is finally flung aside allows Pete to finally start make a difference. The Pearls that I mentioned early, a man and a boy bound together through the religious madness of their wife/mother might be the final redemption for Pete.
I stepped out of my office door the other day to see if in some whiskey laced moment of craziness I had hung a shingle out. People come to me with their problems. I dispense wit and wisdom and sometimes with smug satisfaction feel like I’ve actually helped people. Reading this book and watching Pete fumble around, good intentions surrounding him like the dust devil around Pigpen, I realize that I rely too much on logic. It is a cold science, right and wrong are black and white. So many elements that we slice and dice away from a problem are the very things that make us human. When I should be listening I’m too busy pondering resolutions. Before offering solutions I would be better served to offer compassion. I’m not a priest, social worker, or a psychologist, but I am a person who can help. If I’m going to help I have a responsibility to make sure I do it in a way where I’m helping them more than I’m helping myself.
***4.5 stars out of 5***
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