YOU COULD SPEND a productive year reading nothing but Oregon authors: Sometimes a Great Notion, Geek Love, Wild, The Sisters Brothers, The Left Hand of Darkness, Blankets, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon—and don't forget Ramona Quimby, Age 8. These are just some of the big fish in a pond that's teeming with great writers—and Portland novelist Smith Henderson's Fourth of July Creek just made a formidable splash.
Set in and around the small town of Tenmile, Montana, in the early 1980s, Fourth of July Creek is about a social worker, Pete, and the people who need his help. When a near-feral young boy wanders out of the woods, Pete's drawn into an uneasy relationship with the boy and his disturbed, conspiracy theory-spouting father, Jeremiah—survivalists living dangerously off the grid. Pete's daughter, meanwhile, has gone missing, and his brother is two steps ahead of a vengeful parole officer. Pete's own alcoholism is the least of his concerns.
No one is looking out for the characters in Fourth of July Creek as they struggle with addiction, illness, and poverty; between bumbling law enforcement, overburdened social services, and broad streaks of sheer stubborn independence, these people don't so much "fall through the cracks" as colonize the cracks, set out some lawn furniture, and get comfortable. As a social worker, Pete's the one who's supposed to be keeping things together, and even he's got that little drinking problem to contend with.
Weighing in at around 450 pages, Fourth of July Creek covers tremendous ground both narratively and literally—Pete crisscrosses the wilderness with Jeremiah, and the whole of the west in search of his daughter. All the while, Henderson trusts the peculiarities of his characters and his settings to reflect the bigger picture of a downtrodden, mistrustful, and armed-for-the-apocalypse populace—and as Pete staggers and struggles to right the wrongs of his world, reflect it they do. Add this one to your reading list.