Pete Snow is calm on the surface, a caring social worker intent on saving the children he encounters from their violent or drug-addled parents. But beneath that exterior lies a blizzard. Although he tries his hardest to take care of other people’s families, he’s slowly losing his own as his wife and daughter move to another state entirely and are caught up in things beyond their control. His brother is on the run from the law and he often spends his time blackout drunk or engaged in ill-advised affairs. His life is thrown even further out of balance when a near-feral young boy appears at a local school and he is called in to help, bringing him into contact with Jeremiah Pearl. Pearl is a strange father; living in the wilderness, wary of the government and what he perceives to be the poison of the outside world. In an effort to help, Pete attempts to get closer to Pearl and his son, but soon finds himself coming into contact with the CIA, who see Jeremiah as a potentially violent terrorist with anti-government sensibilities.
Pearl is a compelling character – paranoid and governed by a rigid and religious set of views. For the past few years he has been a bogeyman, a shotgun-wielding ghost that wanders the forests and believes the apocalypse is near. He’s been modifying coins by drilling holes and shapes through various presidents’ heads before feeding the coins back into the system as a protest and a warning, but the CIA and various other acquaintances believe he has something more worrying up his sleeve. What starts out as an effort to ensure the boy is getting medical attention soon turns into an obsession, as Pete tries to work out what has driven Pearl to such lengths, and where the rest of the survivalist’s family are.
While most of the book follows Pete as he slowly works his way into Pearl’s trust, we sometimes catch a glimpse into his daughter’s life in the form of an anonymous social-worker’s reports, neatly mirroring his own profession. These are heart-breaking and intense snippets. Fans of Cormac McCarthy will be in heaven here, as the writing shines throughout, with beautiful prose and eloquent descriptions elevating the often ugly and grim lives of the characters. Evocative sentences such as “the clouds quit raining altogether and shortly thereafter broke up like a crowd at a fistfight” populate the pages and beg to be read out loud.
The novel is bleak to the bone, populated by unstable people who are held together by fraying thread, but it’s also loaded with compassion. It’s a cathartic novel that can be draining – but is made all the more rewarding because of this. Nothing is easy or taken for granted, and as the novel wends its way towards the inevitable, it exerts a gravitational pull that pulls you right in and won’t let go. In a year already populated by fantastic debuts, Fourth of July Creek stands out as a particularly special novel. I hope this novel reaches as many people as possible – it’s a novel worth shouting about.