Lucky Me

“You’re so lucky,” she said. Outside, the rain beaded like quicksilver on the blooming hedge of hydrangea. Inside, a pot of steel-cut oats burped from its perch in the yellow Aga.

 

“Lucky?” I echoed. We’d met the day before. I knew about her as much as she did about me: we were writers, living on opposite ends of North America, seeking solace and inspiration on a wind-tossed island in the Atlantic. “How am I lucky?”

 

“To have had such an easy life, to have things work out so you can write and publish your first novel before you’re twenty-five? That’s lucky.”

 

Fortunately, I’d already swallowed my mouthful of toast. Otherwise I may not be writing to you now, a couple of months after this amazing assessment of my life.

 

“How old do you think I am?” I asked.

 

“You couldn’t be more than twenty-three.”

 

We were sitting closely enough at the small table for her to see the June light dancing with the silver in my hair and pleating the fine lines around my eyes, to see the tendons underneath the dry, spotted-brown backs of my hands shifting like ropes as I gripped a coffee mug. Surely, jet lag had done me no favors.

 

Flattered? No. I felt dismissed. An adulthood—all the heartbreak and blessings; hard work and sacrifice; the careers, the moves, the losses, the triumphs, twenty-three years of marriage—denied by someone who would have been a high school senior to my freshman. This woman had created an entire story about me, had appropriated my history for her fiction, and then thought to recount her version back to me as if it were fact.

 

You always think of the perfect thing to say in the hours, days, weeks, after someone blows your mind. I still haven’t. What I did say was this, “I began writing when I was forty-one. I’ll be halfway to forty-seven when my first novel launches next year.” Breakfast continued in silence.

 

Being on the engineered side of someone else’s story startled me into reflecting on my own behavior: how often do I construct stories about others that deny them their reality? Not the stories I put on the page, where they should be, but of the flesh-and-blood characters in my life? How often have I not asked, not listened, but jumped right into assumption, motivated by envy or impatience, by detriment of unrecognized privileged or sheer mental laziness?

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Seeing through the mist: early morning, Sancerre ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

As writers, we assume that we are keen observers of the human condition. Perhaps we turn to the page because it’s an outlet for the overflow of all that we take in and churn over, trying to sort out and make meaning of the unknowable. It’s our job to witness the world and then to bear witness in our essays and poems, our stories, our streams of thought. We don’t always write what we know; more often we write what we observe, how it makes us feel, and through our imaginations we construct plots to hold all the seeing and feeling together.

 

I begin work my novels by learning about the characters. Sometimes I have the thread of an idea floating, untethered, but I let it drift and spend the early period of discovery—before I begin writing a single word of story—crafting the personalities, goals, and motivations of the people with whom I’ll be spending the next months. I ask dozens of questions and as I determine the answers, themes coalesce and a plot etches a distant outline, like the silhouette of a mountain range emerging from the mist.

 

“The story is not what happens. The story is why it matters.” Lidia Yuknavitch

 

We can’t know why things matter until we understand the nature of the lives affected. This applies not only to our fictional narratives, but to our real world encounters, as well. And what’s required of the writer is required of any human being: we must set our personal narratives aside—our histories, assumptions, envies, fears, rules—and invite in others’ realities.

 

The key to creating empathetic characters is to work them through the questions we raise as we write; the key to being an empathetic person is to listen to others’ stories without seeking answer or explanation.

To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work. Mary Oliver

All good fiction is moral, in that it is imbued with the world, and powered by our real concerns: love, death, how-should-I-live. George Saunders

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So soaked in the mire of his paranoia and removed from the world, Jeremiah Pearl believes ash falling from the sky after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens is fallout from a nuclear war. He emerges from the forest with his young son, Ben, and holds a timber poacher at gunpoint, demanding, How many are left? I asked you how many are left goddamnit!

Smith Henderson’s smashing, crashing, tour de force debut novel, Fourth of July Creek churns with this sort of Action-Misunderstanding-Reaction and a human life often dangles at the end of any given chain of events. There is so very much at stake here; the novel wrings you limp and has you rereading the quiet ending for what you think you’ve missed.

The backwoods of western Montana give a dramatic backdrop to the novel, which takes place 1979-1981. Such an interesting period for this reader, who came of age during the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shortage, the boiling up of the Cold War, and the transition from Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater presidency to the sham of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The world so often seemed on the brink of calamity and Jeremiah Pearl, urged on by his prescient wife Sarah, scoops up his family from Midwest complacency and flees to rural Montana in response. There he begins an anarchic lifestyle–adopting the gold standard, rejecting all forms of government regulation, and risking the health and well-being of his wife and five children. He becomes an oddity, a legend, and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI and the ATF.

But Pearl’s story is only one thread in this dark, writhing tapestry of a novel. The most constant narrator is Pete Snow, a social worker, alcoholic, and disaffected father on the brink of several disasters of his own making. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex wife after a raging, alcohol-infused blow up, “I take kids away from people like us.” There are no heroes here, except the Cloninger family, who accepts the stray children Pete Snow brings to their door.

Pete, who works only when he can pull himself out of a bottle or a bed, is finally kicked out of his mental lethargy by two different mysteries: who and where is Jeremiah Pearl and, after it is too late, how can he save his daughter?

The mythology of Jeremiah Pearl enthralls Pete and he eventually forms a tentative, misplaced friendship with the paranoid radical and Ben, his sweet, almost-saintly, son. In a parallel subplot, Pete embarks on an Odyssey-like quest to find his teenage runaway daughter, Rachel.

This early ’80s world of underfunded social service agencies, abused and neglected children, and addict parents could be 2014, but Henderson recreates an urban squalor in Seattle that has been largely vanquished by massive gentrification. Or simply moved upstream to its nexus on Aurora Avenue. But the rural decay, the political paranoia, and the counter-culture community feel ripped from the headlines. The horror of adolescent institutionalization continues apace and some of the most dreadful scenes in Fourth of July Creek center on what happens to children when they are abused by loved ones and then punished by the system.

Although there are moments of grace and tenderness, this is a hard-bitten, grueling read. It is also damn near impossible to put down. Despite its heft the novel moves at a jittery pace, with tension building like the volcanic dome over Mount Saint Helens. You turn the pages in white-knuckled suspense, anticipating a fiery dénouement.

But here’s where I struggled. Why I cannot sing full-throated praises. Every woman in Fourth of July Creek is presented as a victim, a hag, a whore—most are all three. Only Sarah Pearl wields power over the men around her and that’s because she’s batshit. As a woman, this bleak and gut-wrenching depiction wore me down. As a reader and writer I found it terribly discouraging. And then there’s Pete, born with tremendous advantage and potential, who mostly fucked it away for reasons I could never quite understand or begin to empathize with.

Henderson uses a second-person Q&A to tell Rachel Snow’s story as she “wyoms” through the West and Midwest, as a way to break the tension and jolt the reader from the flow of Pete’s hedonistic and hard-scrabble life. It’s masterfully done, but very nearly overdone. The story within the story didn’t quite work for me. It does offer a female perspective in a novel that is so very white male, but again, the young woman is a victim, tossed about like a pinball. It’s a whole story of how young women become enslaved on our very streets, and it deserves a book of its own. One I’m certain Smith Henderson is more than capable of writing.

An outstanding achievement. One of the year’s best.

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