A social worker runs afoul of a survivalist in ‘Fourth of July Creek’

Reading the first pages of Smith Henderson’s astonishing new novel, you can sense the trouble rising like thunderheads over the plains. A cop waits outside a ramshackle house. You know the place: “Peeling paint, a porch swing dangling from one rusting chain, a missing windowpane taped over with torn cardboard.” A social worker arrives. A mother and son sit handcuffed behind the screen door, subdued.

These two, says the cop, “are full idiots.” The social worker, Pete Snow, is more generous. He eyes the boy. “He could maybe do all right in a stable environment,” he says.

But in Fourth of July Creek, stability is hard to come by, particularly in this time and place (rural Montana in the early 1980s). And the trouble isn’t just with this one family; it’s everywhere. In and around Tenmile, the remote outpost where he lives in a cabin without running water, Pete has seen just about every bad thing you can think of — families living in the woods, abused and neglected children, gas-huffing teenagers, drug-addled parents. His workday could involve patiently writing reports or running from aggressive Rottweilers. His nights inevitably involve booze.

But Pete’s experience hasn’t prepared him for what happens when he meets skinny, sickly Benjamin Pearl, an undersize 11-year-old who shows up in town one day at the school playground. When Pete tries to return the boy to his family — parents and six children live way up in the mountains, hidden somewhere on land owned by a timber company — he runs afoul of Benjamin’s survivalist father Jeremiah, a paranoid zealot who believes the End Times are near and promises, “I’ll put one in that boy’s brain before I let you have him.”

Fourth of July Creek is Henderson’s first novel, a somewhat startling fact because the book reads like the work of someone who has been around and seen too many things he wished he hadn’t. You’re going to hear more about it come awards time.

A PEN and Pushcart Prize winner, Henderson was born and grew up in Montana, and his prose bears the true cadences and rhythm of the rural west. He has been in the sad, seedy bars where people like Pete try to ease the weight of all the good they can’t do (“There were families you helped because this was your job. . . . You just did. Because no one else was going to”). Most times, Pete knows, you really don’t help much at all.

But Fourth of July Creek is too unsparing and serious a novel to serve up a saintly social worker: Pete, for all his good intentions, is hiding just like Jeremiah Pearl. He has abandoned his unfaithful wife and his daughter, Rachel, now a hostile teenager. They move to Texas, and Rachel goes missing. The chapters told from her point of view are written in a rapid-fire question-and-answer style that Henderson meshes surprisingly well with the rest of the novel.

Tension builds as Pete roams from home to work and across the country searching for Rachel. He hikes high into the mountains with Benjamin and Jeremiah, who has offered him a glimmer of trust. But Pete has attracted law enforcement attention, and he can’t help but wonder: Where are the rest of the Pearls?

Henderson keeps these complicated plot lines under control, moving from event to event and character to character with more skill than you’d imagine possible from a first-time novelist. His best trick, though, is reflecting the beginnings of a growing chasm in America, where people are suspicious of what falls outside their experience, where poverty and ignorance breed fear or apathy or violence. Fourth of July Creek reveals social, cultural and economic complexities that define us even now, and it’s never just an examination of the people who fall through the cracks. Henderson is offering something bigger and more vital here: incisive commentary on the inevitable dysfunction that’s the byproduct of poverty and how that dysfunction passes itself on to future generations.

This is a impressive, bold, ambitious book, an unforgettable epic that confidently navigates big themes and breaks your heart with small tragedies.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.