Book review: The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King is an absolutely fantastic book and one of my leading contenders for best book of 2016 — this sharp, insightful, sad, lyrical contemporary is a deeply satisfying if at times absolutely gutting read. Dill, Lydia, and Travis are facing down their last year of high school together in a rural Southern community, watching their time grow short as the weeks and months whip by. As the teens struggle to grow into themselves, unexpected challenges will leave them growing as people, finding their footing as emerging adults, and making difficult decisions.

This is a book about outcasts, but it’s also set within the larger context of a cultural environment where rural communities in general are outcast. People in the US are found of reiterating hateful and dull stereotypes about what it is to live in rural America, and this holds particularly true for commentary made about youth — barefoot hicks who drive battered trucks to high school and barely make it through, if at all, before dropping out to work at the feed store or on pawpaw’s farm. In the South, these stereotypes hold even stronger, holding not just snide attitudes about rural communities but also a healthy dose of assumptions about racism, conservative Christianity, and lack of imagination.

To much of the US, people like the characters in this book are one dimensional figures of fun and comedy, not real human beings with lives, experiences, and goals of their own — and the lives of these characters are all very different. Dill is the son of a preacher who headed up a snake-handling church before being sent to prison for possessing lurid child pornography, something his conservative Christian mother repeatedly blames him for. Travis is the son of an abusive, foul man and a timid mother, living in a family broken apart by the death of his older sibling Matt. Lydia lives in a happy, secure, warm middle class household with her professional parents, and runs an incredibly popular fashion blog that she’s trying to use to jumpstart a career in journalism. All she wants is to get out of town: Dill and Travis know that for them, it’s not that simple.

While they’ve been drawn together by commonalities, they also experience fundamental divides. Lydia believes that the path to happiness lies beyond city limits, while Dill, trapped in an abusive and toxic family environment, fears that leaving would devastate his mother, even as he desperately wants Lydia to stay. Travis is happy reading doorstopper fantasies and working at the lumberyard. They revolve around each other in their final year of high school as they struggle to find out who they are and strike out on their own, surrounded by a complicated and tragic series of events.

Zenter’s writing style is sparse, crisp, clean, taking strongly individuated voices from chapter to chapter as he switches between points of view. The very cleanness of it is perhaps what makes it most haunting, as he doesn’t hide reality and the ugly parts of life beneath flowery, complex prose. Instead, he lays it out for readers, and he’s blunt about the reality of living in blighted rural communities. If at times the book drifts into poverty porn — closed storefronts, deplorable housing — it also captures the joy of living in places where you can watch trains go by and imagine yourself in another world, of being somewhere that you can find and touch nature, feeling it right in front of you instead of having to scrabble for it.

In many ways, The Serpent King reminds me of Shine, another book set in a rural environment that probes into a complicated culture that few people understand. Not being from the South, I can’t speak to that element of it — though certainly some Southerners are praising it — but being from a small town, this book hit me acutely in a space that fiction rarely touches, because I don’t often see communities like mine on the page, being dealt with fairly and authentically by authors who genuinely care about them. Being from a small town, I understand the snarl of secrets, rumours, lies, things brought to light and things suppressed and controversies that might seem unimaginable to others, but that form fundamental divides among residents.

I know what it means to know people who are so poor that they re-use plastic wrap, just as I know what it means to interact with people who fundamentally do not understand that people who are not middle class experience challenges that they cannot imagine. Challenges that cannot be neatly solved by trying harder or applying yourself or getting money through outside sources. Challenges that involve commitments to yourself and your family and your community. I understand what it is to bridge tensions and pressures, to make a conscious decision to live in the same small community you grew up in, to find deeper meaning in a place that others sneer at.

This is a melancholy, dark, challenging book, and it’s something that readers who aren’t familiar with rural spaces should be reading. Rural life is by no means one note, and there are lots of different rural experiences (mine don’t overmap onto any of the characters depicted herein, for example), and there needs to be more rural fiction, more diversity of rural experiences represented in literature, but books like this are important entries in the canon.

Image: Serpent, Brent Schneeman, Flickr