peteg's blog

Smith Henderson: Fourth of July Creek

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Second time round on the Kindle. It's addictive, making it easier to pick up a promising book than to make progress on any side project. Oh well. I read most of this on the plane back to Chicago from ICFP in Vancouver, and a little in the evenings before that.

Set in 1979 and a bit later, Montana and thereabouts, Twin Peaks territory but nowhere as kooky. The myth-minting is highly unoriginal here — Reagan is the antichrist as he survived an assassination attempt, for instance — which makes me think that it is not Henderson's point. But then all his characters conform to type: Mary, one of several gone girls, has been through more institutions than she has fingers and toes, was serially abused in the obvious way and is now a paid functionary for this system while moonlighting as a nymphomaniac prostitute. Pete Snow, the central character, is a social worker who is similarly bent. Almost everyone is soaked in alcohol. So that really just leaves the plot, which takes a neat swerve from the "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" cliché to the modern indistinguishability of deep spirituality from mental illness. Which may have been his point. That and Christ's inability to save himself.

While I enjoyed it, this left me with a feeling similar as Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut, that I'd read the same websites at approximately the same time and the cutting insight did not really arrive. There is a hell of a lot of gesturing at "fiat currency" here, a big topic within the libertarian community, and some dissonance: apocalyptic Pearl converts his USD to gold and argues that the latter has no inherent value... so if he's only going to use it for trade, why not stick with USD, or go all-in on the instrumental goods? Isn't gold ultimately subject to the same pathologies as fiat currencies, being manipulable by powerful (state) actors? Ultimately can't the state futz with any and every market? Argh, too many rhetorical questions! Or unsurprising answers.

Henderson does some nice writing in the small, but has too many pieces on the board for things to add up satisfactorily. I got this book on the strength of Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times. Her observation: "The daughter's story is a chilling reminder of how much damage parents can unwittingly inflict on their children." links this to Deborah Robertson's book. "It may remind readers of many different writers, even though it's such an original." is a funny way of saying that it's entirely derivative, but she liked the synthesis. Imitation is the sincerest form, and so forth.