This is a book about living hard. About trying. About how trying sometimes isn’t enough.
In this his novel from 2014 author Smith Henderson pulls no punches as he paints a portrait of America as a hive of contradictions.
In it he explores concepts of freedom and of anarchy and of social responsibility.
It is not a perfect book, not in my eyes, but it manages to feel important without knocking you over the skull with pretentiousness.
It tells it’s story through several sets of eyes. In the middle of it all we have Pete, who is a social worker out in the hardscrabble, abandoned to his duties by his superiors. He struggles to keep together the lives of the young people that he feels responsible for. One of these children in Cecil, an extremely troubled child who wants nothing more than to break away from his abusive mother and who scrambles away into wilds of the streets in a vain attempt to survive and thrive. Another is Benjamin, who is the son of Jerimiah Pearl, a cracked survivalist who foresees a coming apocalypse. Through Benjamin, Pete meets and somewhat connects with Jerimiah through their shared struggles. Pete is separated from his wife and his daughter, Rachel, who runs away from home. This leads Pete into a downward and destructive spiral which will make you question his suitability for his profession. Chapters are often bookended by interviews with Rachel, conducted by the omniscient narrator, or perhaps through this interviewers willingness to express their opinion on the events on the story and it’s characters, we could read them as representing the reader.
Through these different perspectives, we are told a holistic, dark tale. It dives into some troubling depths. Certainly it is not for the faint of heart, and certainly it is not for those who cannot stand to read about the abuse of children, for it is the children who are often the most failed in this tale and Smith Henderson does not restrict himself in the telling of the horrors that befall them. In a poetic and often rambling prose he tells this story, and his horrors unfurl with a great lyrical quality which may call into mind the beautiful violence of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. At times it ventures into overwritten territory, as if Smith Henderson is pushing for the comparison which I have just given, but when it works, it works.
It doesn’t always.
At one point he uses the phrase “harvesting orgasms” and I can hardly abide that. My eyes almost rolled out of my head.
But those moments are rare in a long and winding book, and for the most part I was enraptured in the prose. It helped me weave my way through the darkest of the novels depths.
So although not perfect, Smith Henderson has branded this story upon my skin, as there are both terrors and wonders in the words of this book which I won’t soon forget.
If I was to give it just a word, and I will, it would be haunting.
I gave it 4 STARS on Goodreads.