Smith Henderson is a man in a hurry.
In the middle of a 17-city book tour, he has stopped by McCormick Café for a quick interview before heading off to Yellowstone Public Radio to be interviewed for “Here and Now,” a nationally syndicated news program on public radio.
Although it is nearly lunch time, he is interviewed over a classic Montana breakfast: biscuits and gravy with a couple of eggs on the side. He has no time to waste: Before the day is out, his tour will take him to Bozeman; the following day, he will be on the road to Missoula.
All at once, the Montana native is living a writer’s dream. His first novel, “Fourth of July Creek,” hit the bookshelves in late May.
Reviews have been stunning: “First novels don’t come much more confidently written or fully imagined than this,” said the New York Times. The Washington Post reviewer called it “the best book I’ve read so far this year.” Esquire said simply, “This is a hell of a great book.”
Like many writers, Mr. Henderson became an overnight sensation after years of apprenticeship. He grew up in Western Montana and studied Latin and Greek at the University of Montana. He took a job in an advertising firm in Portland, Ore., where he was nominated for an Emmy for writing a Super Bowl commercial, “Halftime in America,” starring Clint Eastwood.
Meanwhile, he was writing. He won a Pushcart Prize in 2011, was a 2011 Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University and was a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas.
He grew up among cowboys, loggers and miners, but he had friends who were children of Missoula hippies. He spent a lot of time in the woods and riding horses, but he also laid the groundwork for good writing, which, he said, “comes from reading your ass off.”
He read Western writers such as Marilynne Robinson, Sherman Alexie and Ken Kesey but didn’t really see a way to emulate them artistically. Then he came across Southern writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
“It was like somebody shot a rifle off right next to my ear,” he said.
He began to see a way to set the artistry and emotional resonance of the great Southern writers in the Pacific Northwest. He wrote a first novel that goes beyond traditional Western stoicism to dig deeply into the souls of damaged, troubled characters.
The people he grew up around were not stoics, he said. They were talkative, active and fascinating, real people with real and sometimes ruined lives, and he tries to capture some of that in his book.
“I didn’t want you to feel empathy,” he said. “I wanted you to feel pain.”
The novel grew out of his experiences as a social worker in a group home and out of a simple image in his head: A boy wanders out of the woods into a small Montana town. He wrote about both ideas for a couple of years before realizing that he had a book.
And what a book it is. It tells the story of Pete Snow, a social worker who goes to work in the fictional Montana town of Tenmile in 1979. He encounters kids with heartbreaking problems, and he devotes himself to helping them, including the kid who wanders into town from the woods.
That kid provides the basis for much of the story. His father is a survivalist, hiding away in the Montana woods. At first encounter, the father seems about as one-dimensional a villain as one could want, but, surprisingly, he and Snow slowly learn to understand and appreciate each other.
Finding compassion for even the most difficult characters was one of the challenges of writing the novel, Mr. Henderson said, especially since there seems to be a deficit of compassion in the national dialogue. It was particularly hard to find compassion for a character who seems to draw his ideas about economics from the Freeman who holed up in Montana back in the 1990s.
Confusing as those theories may be, Mr. Henderson said, they aren’t much more confusing than reality.
“I defy anyone to explain the financial system in a coherent way,” he said. At least, he said, people like survivalists believe deeply in what they are doing, while the rest of us often lack the courage to take a stand.
Pete Snow has problems in his work life, but his personal life is an even bigger mess. He drinks too much. He is estranged from his wife and from his daughter, who eventually runs away and sends him on a desperate search to Texas to try to find her.
Mr. Henderson describes those drinking sessions in Missoula as well as any drinking bouts I have encountered in literature since “Tortilla Flats.” As he describes it, “It starts out funny, then it gets fuzzy, then it gets ugly.”
For all of the pathos and misery depicted in the novel, it has a lighter touch, too. At one point, Mr. Henderson turns Wyoming into a verb: “To wyom was to go from nowhere to nowhere. Through nowhere. To see nothing. To do nothing but sit. You turn on the radio and wyom through the dial slowly, carefully in search of a sliver of civilization only to find a man talking about the price of stock animals and feed. You listen to a dour preacher wyoming about your bored and dying and wyoming soul.”
Underlying the story is Mr. Henderson’s strong affection for social workers, whom he calls “doctors, lawyers, cops, all rolled into one.”
He added, “Hey, how about we do a little bit more for our social services?”
His writing career has included a stint teaching composition to college students, who are told they need to go to college to make a living, and then are made to read poems. He said that they ask, legitimately, why?
He said he tells them, “The world is going to ask you to do pointless things a lot, but this is not one of them.”
He added, “A really good book shows you the range of things that can happen. In a sense, it sort of prepares you for life.”
Or sometimes a really good book can just be a really good book. Not long before I read “Fourth of July Creek,” I was thinking that it had been an awfully long time since a book had grabbed me by the lapels and made me just sit and read until I was done.
Now it hasn’t been long at all. This was that book.