Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner’s Coming of Age Novel for Adolescents (and the rest of us)

When I was an adolescent, I primarily read fantasy and science fiction.  The reluctant son’s reading has skewed more towards sports stories – some fiction and some about real life events, but mostly, as my reading was, fantasy focused – the kid who is in some way an outsider becomes the winning quarterback or pitcher or whatever just as, in science fiction, the kid at the edge of the universe ends up saving it.  I suppose that the Harry Potter series, which I read before I began blogging, is also adolescent literature – though Rowling maintains that she was always writing with an adult reader in mind.  Young Adult lit was, in part, a category that was developed on the New York Times bestseller lists because they got tired of Harry Potter books dominating the fiction list, but I think it exists because there are people like this author, Jeff Zentner, who write for the audience – and the sales support this as a viable genre.  Hey, anything that gets kids to read is a good thing, right?

Zentner’s goal seems to be loftier than that, though.  He wants us to know that Southerners are people, too, even those who handle snakes.  The novel’s protagonist, Dillard Early, is the grandson of Dillard Early, the serpent king, whose son, Dillard Early, was the snake handling preacher, and this Dillard Early – Junior, even though he is the third, because, in a southern tradition, when his grandfather died his father became senior is the hero of the story.  His grandfather died of grief over the loss of his daughter who was bitten by a copperhead.  As a means of expressing his anger, he started killing copperheads, not knowing which one had killed his daughter.  He wore their skins and became a sad and vacant person who, consumed by his grief, ultimately killed himself by drinking poison while lying atop his daughter’s grave.  His son, emboldened by Mark 16:18, which states that those who believe shall survive being bitten by snakes and drinking poison, started a church where the believers passed around snakes, occasionally being bitten by them and, if they believed, surviving the bites, just as the believers survived drinking the poison.  The grandson had a crisis of faith and chose, while singing for the church, not to handle the snakes just before his father was sent to jail for having kiddie porn on the computer. 

Wow – what fertile psychoanalytic soil that is!  I could easily spend the rest of this post detailing the ways in which the Serpent King’s attachment to his daughter and failure to connect with his son set in motion a multigenerational tragedy that would make Oedipus blush at being such a piker – but that would be pure speculation because the book lets this backstory remain just that – and we focus instead on the current life of Dill Early, Jr., a kid who, as a senior in high school, visits his weird Dad in prison, lives with his Mom in meager housing, is, not surprisingly, heckled by the kids at school, and works to help pay off the family debts at the local grocery store in the small town of Forrestville Tennessee.  He is saved from misery by two friends – Travis, who reads the Bloodfall series of fantasy books (I checked – they don’t really exist anymore than the small town of Forrestville supposedly named for Nathan Bedford Forrest (apparently a real confederate general, and one of the founders of the KKK)) and Lydia, a super cool girl with a relatively well-off and super supportive Dentist dad, a devoted on-line following, but not a friend beyond Dill and Travis at their hick high school – where none of the three of them are appreciated by anyone who is not in their circle.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this book was that the dialogue – the banter between the friends – was a wormhole that transported me back to being an adolescent hanging with my friends.  I found myself pining for the easy jocularity with close friends where there was little fear of alienating them because our shared affection was so transparent.   The healing power of this kind of comradery cannot, I think, be underestimated, and Dill is, as he comes of age, healed in this book.  But healed from what?  And prepared for what? 

I am concerned that the author takes liberties with understanding others as if we were all the same when they may in fact be fundamentally different in ways that may be dangerous to his readers and to their contact with “others” to assume is not the case.  It is clear from the biographical material in the book that there are many links between Dill and the author.  They are both musicians, and it is Dill’s musical ability – his ability to channel his father’s charismatic intensity into the songs that he writes and performs – that is one of his tickets out of Forrestville.  So I think that Zentner is in solid literary ground when he writes a first person account based on an identification with the hero of the book.  The question that I have is whether he came from similar fundamentalist roots?

A quick survey of various interviews and statements online suggests that while religion of some form was important to Zentner, he based the part of Dill on the musicians that he knew who hailed from places where snake handling occurs.  He did research on evangelicals and their religions and how they worked – so he had a sense of what the back story would be – and I certainly appreciated learning about how the religion worked and the sense in what seems to be a senseless religious expression – he has a compassionate curiosity about the phenomena that I think he lends to Dill – who is somewhat (and reasonably) appalled at what his father does and is doing.  I think this brings us as readers along with him into a place where we can walk with a guy we would otherwise look past.  But the question is whether we are still looking past him – and seeing a weird reflection of ourselves in foreign territory.

When Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help, she wrote the white characters in the first person, but she intentionally wrote about the black characters only in the third person.  To inhabit the mind of the “other” involves a great deal of presumption.  I think that someone who has been raised within a fundamentalist church and has been abused in the ways that Dill has may not have some of the facile ability that Zentner imagines Dill to have in distancing himself from his father and seeing him as an oddity.  I don’t know about that, but I suspect, for instance, that the views that he has been raised with are more likely to be seen as truths than as oddities.  For instance, I have a friend, one of the brightest guys I know and one of the first people I felt the kind of rapport that bloomed in adolescence that I describe above – I met him when we were about 10 and in a gifted kids class a million years ago – and he still maintains – despite his having achieved a Ph.D., that creationism is a reasonable description of the world that we live in – in fact the only plausible one.  This is one area where our easy rapport simply slides away and we have to agree to disagree.  It is not worth our friendship, to either one of us, to go to the mat over this.  We go to the mat over many things – but this has a different feel to it.

I think that what Zentner is doing here is both deeply entertaining – I cried through much of the book – as many of his other readers did – I was fully taken by this very well told story and empathized deeply with the characters in my own particular way – and educational – I think he wants us to learn that the South, for all its mystery and all of the prejudice that we have about it – is a place that is deserving of our engagement.  And I applaud both of these goals.  But if we achieve them on shifting and false grounds, we are going to be severely disappointed on both sides – as Southerners (if you will) and Northerners when we actually convene around a table and discover that despite our similarities, we also have deep and powerfully divisive differences that are not as easily reconciled as this book would suggest. Lydia is, I think, Zentner’s more convincing “Southern” voice, because I think she more nearly mirrors who it is that Zentner is.  But Dill’s voice – as lovely as it is – does not feel as authentic.

What am I proposing?  I hope that this book would be made into a movie someday.  I would also hope that, should that happen, Zentner would work with a screen writer and a director to think about the character of Dill and to consider how we might a love a person – as Lydia and Travis do – in part by realizing that they are not living, in some ways, in the world that we are.  Zentner is, I think, indulging, as Dill, in a fantasy about being loved by Lydia that he also recognizes is an unrealizable fantasy.  We know throughout the book that Lydia’s horizons are different than Dill’s.  This is beautifully portrayed – and the work that the two of them do to find a narrative path for Dill that will help him work towards who he will become is beautifully described.  But the tragic divergence of their paths is also evident.  And this is not just because she is into fashion and he is into music – it is because her place is a place like New York City and NYU – the school that she is accepted into – and his is Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State University – the school that he is able to head towards.  Their paths from there will diverge – they will stay in touch, but they are not soul mates.  This does not mean that their souls are of different value – just that they are different.  To not acknowledge the fundamentally different tenor of these two people could lead to one or the other being co-opted and becoming a wholly owned subsidiary – something that would leave the world a lesser place.

That last bit may seem a bit opaque.  I think what I am stating is something like what Jordan Peele points towards in Get Out – that disavowing fundamental differences between people leads to reducing us to a common denominator that is, in fact, not common, but imaginary.  Indeed, no lesser a light than Freud did this in the case of Dora where he assumed that men and women – and he and Dora – were the same underneath.  Maybe so, but it is so far underneath, and there are so many layers of difference between here and there that the “essential” aspect of the other is something that they themselves don’t recognize.  That is, would the real Dill – as if there could be such a person – recognize himself as well as we – a presumably empathic and receptive audience – recognize the Dill that Zentner describes?  He, unlike we, might, instead of crying, be appalled that anyone could think that he would, for instance, feel anything but profound and very deep loyalty towards his father and mother – and that this would be the essential conflict – a conflict within himself – not between himself and his parents – as he wrestles with coming of age by finding a path that will allow him to be true to who he is – as a son and a grandson – and as the person who wants to write a different kind of gospel music – the gospel of the love he feels towards someone who is as alien to him as the person he loves most and wants to be most deeply in harmony with – Lydia.   

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