Monday, April 4, 2016

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner rotates between three primary characters - Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Dill's father is a local preacher who handles poisonous snakes and drinks arsenic with his congregation. He's recently been imprisoned; not for these unconventional practices, but instead for possession of child pornography. Dill is living in the aftermath of his father's crimes, saddled with the name of his father and the legacy of his grandfather, known as The Serpent King. While the novel is told from an omniscient point of view, Dill's story is the one that continuously comes into focus, and roots the direction of the narrative. At the beginning of the novel, he seems content to continue living in his small town for the rest of his life, paying down his parents' legal debts. But his aspirations soon grow wider, aided by Lydia's belief that he should attend college. When this new path is opened for him, he understands "nothing makes you feel more naked than someone identifying a desire you never knew you possessed" (82). Dill is hemmed in by the inescapable pressures of religion, and especially as embodied in his family. His mother doesn't want him to go to college and when Lydia asks him how it went when he finally tells her, he says, "And how do you think? She went, 'Sure, Dill, go off to college and have fun and learn about evolution and pay tuition and go to class instead of working, and I'll hold down the fort here and it'll be cool.' No. She crapped herself, obviously" (179). 

Lydia is ready to escape small-town Tennessee. Her dad is a dentist and she lives in one of the nicest houses in town, and has always had aspirations to leave the South behind her. Lydia spends much of her time working on her blog, Dollywould, which focuses on fashion and vintage clothes. Her interests are much different than those of her classmates. For example, she has a copy of Donna Tartt's The Secret History in her Prius, a car that she's nicknamed Al Gore. Later, she buys a secondhand copy of her favourite book, Patti Smith's Just Kids, at Riverbank, their favourite used and new bookstore. She reads The Diary of Anais Nin at their high school cafeteria table. Her path in life and her personal convictions are strengthened by viewing everything she knows she does not want out of life in the town that she was raised in. 

Travis was my favorite character. He reads to escape his small town and is obsessed with a Game of Thrones knockoff series called Bloodfall. He spends time on message boards dedicated to the series, and it's here that he meets a teenage girl named Amelia, who is as into the books as he is. Travis is an imposing teenager at 6 feet 6 inches and 250 pounds, and wears the same outfit nearly every day. Dill watches him leave his house to join him and Lydia on a trip to Nashville, observing, "He wore his signature black work boots, black wranglers, and baggy black dress shirt buttoned all the way up. Around his neck, he wore a necklace with a chintzy pewter dragon gripping a purple crystal ball - a memento from some Renaissance festival." He also carries a staff, which Lydia is constantly on his case about. He has a devastating home life; his brother Matt was killed in an explosion while serving in the U.S. Army and his father has become even more abusive since Matt's death. 

The Serpent King is an unexpected novel, one that gives readers characters to care about. Heartbreaking moments are mixed in with truly satisfying moments, as Dill, Lydia, and Travis consider what their lives will look like when they aren't trapped by their small town high school. It's been a while since I've read a novel the whole way through in one sitting, but that's what I did with The Serpent King. It's Zentner's debut novel, and I'm looking forward to watching for his next publication. 

No comments: