The book club meeting this month did not come together as one might hope. People are hard to corral, it turns out. But my Mariah meeting was delightful, and my gchat with Kris was cathartic, and I'm here to give you some talking points about the book Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson.
The summary is easy, because it's literary fiction: an alcoholic social worker in rural Montana in 1980 becomes deeply involved with a father and son who are living in the woods. He's enthralled by them. At the same time, his estranged daughter goes missing. There's your summary.
Questions are both easy for this one, because there's a lot to say, and hard, because I feel like I have answers I want to RANT about all of these things. So if my questions are phrased in a, shall we say, leading fashion, take it as my trying to be all things to all people. Well, all things to me.
1) Aren't you tired of reading books that hate women? (See what I meant by leading questions?) Do you sometimes start reading a book and have hopes that the fact that all the female characters are messed up and vacuous and have no internal lives and exist only to serve the male characters is going to be addressed in the text, and that the author is consciously commenting on things, but then you realize that no, it's not the character who's treating women as non-people, it's the author?
There are no females who are anything but a mess. Most of them are defined entirely in their relationships with Pete. True, most characters in this book are a mess, but you have Cloninger, and the judge, and even Spoils, who are all very flawed but also have strong streaks of good, of trying. But Pete wonders if all women are Beth, and of Beth, he thinks that her beauty "makes a body want to screw her heart out."
There were so many places to put this non-messed-up woman, too. Give one of the other social workers a little depth. Give Mrs. Cloninger some lines. Have Mary say something about compartmentalization at the beginning of their relationship. Give Mary some damned depth. Make one of the FBI agents female.
Nope. This book really hated women, and that's my biggest (but far from only) problem with it.
2) How many times did you go back and forth between liking Pete--thinking of him as a normal, though deeply flawed, person--and hating him for not even trying at any of the things he's supposed to be doing? Did you find yourself able to have sympathy for his alcoholism, or did you feel like he didn't really struggle with it so much as just drink a lot? Am I being too judgemental?
3) What does Pete want? What is he chasing? He and Beth ask each other why they do the things they do--why do they? Is that question the point of the book?
4) What is the point of the book? I've talked before about how a book doesn't have to make a Grand Statement, but that to understand a book, I need to know why the author chose to tell this story specifically. Sometimes it's because it's a romp, and sometimes it's so we understand a real situation, but most often I feel like I can see the Point the author was trying to make--even The Dinner was about how evil can look banal, and even The Red House was about how suffering takes so many forms and happens to everyone.
For this one, every possible point I can come up with feels like I'm tacking it on. Is it about how we could all be treating each other more gently? Is it about how people do things that don't make sense, so we never really know how we got to where we are? Both of those are real possibilities, but I feel like Pete is so damned un-self aware that he doesn't really embody any of them.
5) What does Jeremiah Pearl mean to Pete? Why is he drawn to Benjamin and his father? What pleasure does he take in their company? Is it how they live outside of civilization? Because Pete's living on the fringes of it himself? Is it about nature? Because he doesn't seem to notice the nature? Is it because he's won the cautious approval of a guy who hates everyone, and that makes him feel full of himself? That feels truest, but I don't think it's supported by the text.
6) Is it a little heavy-handed to have your main character named Snow (with a daughter who calls herself Rose), and his mirror character named Pearl? I'm not sure what the metaphor is, but doesn't it seem ponderous anyway? And what's up with a lawman in the American West named Pinkerton? Again, too much?
7) What about the ending? Too pat? Too happily-ever-after? Do you think (you can guess what I think) that maybe the explicitly racist crazy guy living in the woods was maybe let off the hook a little bit there?
8) What is up with Cecil? What is even his role in this story? Is it just to make Pete seem like less of an ass because hey, he learned his lesson there, right? Social workers out there, how do you feel about Pete as a social worker? Given that he's operating in the '80s in the middle of nowhere and likely has no access to services, is he doing the best one might expect (when he isn't taking a week off here and there and over here again)?
I thought I hated this book till about 3/4 of the way through it, but at that point I realized that I may hate all the characters, and (see item 1) possibly the author, but I was actually kind of enjoying reading it. I would call this a thumbs up, even if my only desire is to rant about it vociferously.
Which, look, I just did! Book clubbers who read this I'd love to hear your thoughts; I'm sure Kris has a rant of her own that she'd like to post. I'm sorry the meeting didn't work out; I even finished the book BEFORE Tuesday this time!
Oh, well. Another month, another chance. See you all in October!