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.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus EatersThe Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The perfect title. As readers, we give it little thought. By the time we see a book in its finished state, it’s a done deal. We consider its cover, the heft in our hands as we ponder the accolades on the back jacket or peruse the synopsis on the inside flap (I don’t know what e-reading sorts do – don’t you miss the feel of a book, the whisper and scent of paper and ink? Sigh.). At any rate, the right title is perhaps the most critical and taken-for-granted aspect of a book.

But the perfect title will be more than a quote or an image from the book it fronts. It will carry a theme or act as a metaphor to summarize in a handful of words the book’s core. Such titles seem as if the book was written around them.

And so it is with The Lotus Eaters. As depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters were inhabitants of an island deep in the southern Mediterranean who ate from a native lotus, becoming indolent and apathetic – drugged by the flower’s narcotic. Odysseus’s sailors

“…went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Odyssey IX

It is an image used time and again by novelists, from James Joyce to Edith Wharton, and serves as the ideal metaphor for Tatjana Soli’s debut novel The Lotus Eaters.

In Soli’s gorgeous, fluid and haunting novel, the seductive narcotic is war. When war mixes with ambition, desire and an exotic locale, it becomes an elixir custom-made to slake the thirst for adventure.

This novel expresses more clearly than any I can think of the allure of the war experience and the shame and confusion that accompanies the attraction. The story opens in April, 1975 as Saigon is overrun by the North Vietnamese Army, signaling the end of the war in Vietnam. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, is torn between getting herself and her lover onto a chopper and out of the madness and her desire to capture this story of her lifetime.

Helen makes her decision and through that decision the reader is taken back ten years, to the start of Helen’s personal and professional journey through Vietnam. The Lotus Eaters is told principally from the perspective of Helen, but we also read through the voices of Linh, a Vietnamese photojournalist, and Sam Darrow, a celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Both men become Helen’s mentors and the focus of her passions.

Helen’s ambition to excel as a female photojournalist pushes her past the machismo of her fellow journalists, the barriers erected by the military against allowing women near the front, the horror of witnessing death and mutilation, the impossible fight against nature in the tropics and mountains of Southeast Asia, and her loneliness and fear, until all of these become the very source of her ambivalent addiction to recording the war in Vietnam. Vietnam becomes home. She learns its language, the rhythms of its seasons; its very scents and shadows become ingrained in her spirit.

The Lotus Eaters shows us the upside-down world of the wartime experience and how living on the edge heightens each emotion. Passion, anger, fear, joy intensify until they overshadow memories of “normal.” Helen even tries to return home, spending several weeks in the healing beauty of the California coast, but the pull of the Lotus is too strong. She returns to Vietnam, to assume her place at the front lines of the war.

Tatjana Soli’s writing is as lush and vivid as her setting. She can be heavy-handed with the metaphors, as if she’s trying too hard to bring you into this overgrown, overripe world, but this is easily forgiven. Her characters are complete, the story is compelling and the writer’s voice is strong and unique. The novel itself became a Lotus that I reluctantly set aside each day and was bereft when it came to an end.

Rarely do we see war’s front lines through the eyes of a woman; rarer still is ambivalence so richly presented without judgment or conclusion. An outstanding read.

View all my reviews


Book Review: Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaCanada by Richard Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel honored when a book teaches me something new about reading, when a writer has the confidence in his story to pull no punches with his writing, trusting in the reader’s intelligence to absorb a story without telling her what she should feel.

What Richard Ford teaches me with the exquisite Canada is patience. He teaches me to pull back, hold on, allow the plot to reel out while keeping a closer eye on the characters and their actions and reactions. What he offers in return for my patience is writing that makes me nearly weep with envy: clean yet evocative, each detail chosen to express character and place without eclipsing the reader’s imagination.

The narrator, Dell Parsons, looks back across five decades to 1960, the year his mother and father robbed a bank in a small town in the plains of eastern Montana. From Dell’s tone – sometimes tender, sometimes ironic but always mild and thoughtful – you are fairly certain he turns out okay, despite the crises he endured during his formative years. These crises take a while to unfold. Ford introduces the bank robbery in the novel’s opening line, but maintains a brilliant balance between tension and torpidity by circling around the incident for more than one hundred pages.

In the interim he builds the portrait of a family who misses the mark of the American Dream. Bev Parsons, a husband with a handsome head in the clouds, leaves the Air Force and settles his wandering family in Great Falls, believing his charisma will lead to easy success, free from the structured demands of the military. He is mis-matched physically and intellectually with Neeva, his diminutive wife who rarely looks up from the drudgery of her life lest she be forced to acknowledge her disappointments. Their offspring – an awkward daughter saddled with an ugly face and the unfortunate name of Berner, and her younger-by-six-minutes twin, Dell, blessed with his father’s looks and an accommodating spirit – are raised with love, if not much stability.

Dell looks back at the decisions his parents made, at the moments when they approached the cliff and could have turned around, without judgment or bitterness. This is remarkable, because their foolishness upended his life; the bank robbery is only the beginning of a free fall that ends in murder, suicide and the dissolution of his family.

At the end of his life as he knows it, Dell sets out on a melancholy Odyssey from adolescence to adulthood. His internal journey first parallels a literal one as he moves from Great Falls to Partreau, Saskatchewan, a near-ghost town in the desolate prairies of central Canada. And from there his story continues as he fends for himself in a small world of cast-off adults.

Canada‘s story is created by a landscape of reflection and resolution, of lives that turn on a dime, where the border between possibility and no turning back can be crossed only once, but consequences follow forever.

Ford’s deliberative style is like a skilled horse rider’s loose hold on the reins – he doesn’t need to make the obvious moves to steer the horse – it takes only a slight movement of thigh or heel to communicate his desires. Equally, Ford communicates soul-shifting menace through the subtle nature of his characters and his setting- what he leaves out speaks to the power of what remains.

View all my reviews