Peter Snow is a social worker with a host of messy cases on his hands. At the start of Fourth of July Creek, his most pressing cases are Katie and Cecil, two children living with their drug-addled and violent mother. Across the district of Tenmile he has countless other similar families to deal with. But this isn’t where Pete’s problems end. Despite dealing with those dependent on substances in his work, Pete himself is bordering on being an alcoholic. When he meets Mary, a fellow social worker, it seems as though he might have discovered a way out of his own little mire. But then he finds out about her past, and how it’s infected her future, and soon even that takes a turn for the worse.
Then there’s his family. A brother on the lam from the law, a father with health problems. A wife who has cheated on him, about to move away to Texas with his daughter, Rachel. In the novel’s second strand, we hear, in the style of an interview, the story of Rachel’s life. From her difficulties as a child of divorce, to her unease at the growing intensity of the stares men aim her way, and later, crucially, to her travails as a runaway.
And all that without even mentioning the narrative drive at the centre of Henderson’s impressive debut. The Pearl family. When a young and almost feral Benjamin Pearl wanders into a Tenmile school, Pete is called. He clothes the kid, cleans him and interviews him, and then takes him to the remote place that his dad is hiding. Jeremiah Pearl confronts Pete, threatens to kill him if he ever returns. But Pete has been particularly affected by Benjamin and, as the novel progresses, he slowly finds a way into this family of two with gifts of food, games of checkers, and a refusal to give up.
Jeremiah is an intense and fascinating character that is written with a skill far beyond most debut novelists. He’s a seemingly paranoid soul who thinks the end of the world is nigh and all of law enforcement is out to get him. He doesn’t trust the dollar. And to get his message out about it, he scrawls tiny messages and swastikas into coins and distributes them around the country.
Despite his air of lunacy, though, it eventually becomes clear that not all of his theories are completely delusional. As Pete becomes increasingly involved with the family, he discovers more questions than he does answers. Why are the police so keen to find Jeremiah? Where did this strange old man’s beliefs come from? And just where is his wife, his four or five other children?
With so much going on, most debut novelists would probably struggle not to make a mess of it. Henderson not only manages to avoid this, but he tells this multi-layered tale with the ease of a seasoned storyteller. The way he manages multiple plots is reminiscent of an early Stephen King, but his prose has echoes of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. His characters, down to the smallest, are brought to life in a way that only the best authors know how. You’ll feel sympathy for the most messed up people, anger at the most selfish, and empathy for everybody. This is fiction of the highest order.
Any Cop?: Henderson’s debut is a special, special novel. Involving and thought-provoking throughout, it saves its peak for a final hundred pages that are more gripping than any show you’ve ever seen on TV. If you haven’t read this book by the end of the year, you need to have a stern word with yourself. Henderson is going to be huge.