This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.
Two days ago, I posted my write up of The Ploughmen, a novel set against the bleak, wintry landscape of rural Montana. Book number two on my Christmas countdown – Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek – has the same backdrop, albeit set thirty years earlier. Men brooding in Big Sky Country has been kind of my bag this year. (Related: I enjoyed men brooding in rural Wisconsin too, as evidenced by book number twelve on this list.)
In Fourth of July Creek, set in the late 70s and early 80s, the brooding man is Pete Snow, a children’s social worker with his own chaotic family: an estranged adulterous wife, a teenage daughter going off the rails and a brother who has just broken his parole and is on the run. But Pete is good at his job, compassionate and driven by what must motivate anyone to be a social worker: a desire to help improve others’ lives.
When he comes across Benjamin Pearl – a malnourished, dirty, almost feral 11 year old boy, Pete tries his best to help, only to be violently driven away by the boy’s reclusive survivalist father, Jeremiah. Over the course of the novel, he perseveres, insinuating his way in to the rootless family. A passage in which Pete helps Jeremiah to recover from snow blindness – gently convincing the man that he has not been struck permanently blind by a higher power, slowly winning his trust – is as tense as any thriller. But just as there’s risk in not gaining Jeremiah’s trust, so the risk of becoming embroiled in the man’s paranoia, conspiracy theories and distinctly illegal activities become apparent. Particularly as Pete can’t quite work out where to draw the line.
First things first, Henderson’s prose is excellent. It’s rich and imaginative, whilst never becoming impenetrable. Fourth of July Creek is so readable and so full of language to really savour. It’s mouthwatering. But this book gets its other ‘bits’ right too: the characters are three-dimensional (Pete could easily have been portrayed as a saint, a saviour, but instead he is far from it); and the plot is driven forward by a pervasive sense of threat, an feeling of dread and a skilfully handled pace to a climax that is not predictable but right.