The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner Crown Books for Young Readers (2016) 384 pp
Jeff Zentner and I are friends — full disclosure. We first met in January 1999 in Brazil, where we worked together for several months, and we’ve stayed in touch since. If you listen to my podcast, you’ve heard some of his music. A few years ago he told me he was working on a book. I had faith in him, but what he produced surprised me much more than it should have. I’m pleased to say that I’m reviewing his book here not because he is my friend — in fact, I almost didn’t because of that — but rather because his debut novel, written for young adults, is a tremendous work that affected me deeply, and I cannot wait to see what else this author has in store.
Though the central character in the novel is Dill, the book is broken down into chapters narrated by three friends just beginning their senior year in high school: Dill himself, Travis, and Lydia. They live in a small Tennessee town called Forrestville — that’s not a typo: the town was named after the Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, not something the three friends are proud of.
Lydia is anxious to get out, and she has the means to do so. She has choices. Her family is well off, and she can demonstrate her disdain for the town and its culture freely because she’s getting out. There’s no question. Her family is not particularly linked to the town, and her parents have encouraged her to think and engage with the outside world to the extent she is a popular fashion blogger with invitations to the best shows and schools in the world.
Dill and Travis, on the other hand, are more entrenched in the town. Indeed, they barely think of leaving because they simply do not see the way out.
Travis’s father is abusive and has only gotten worse since Travis’s brother was killed. Travis is a disappointment because he is not the popular jock; rather, he loves fantasy novels and wears gothic clothes and carries a staff. His father hates it to the point he’ll do anything to shut Travis down.
Dill’s father, who was a famous snake handling preacher in the region, is in prison for child pornography. Dill’s emotional relationship with his father is complex and rendered beautifully in the novel. On the one hand, he is ashamed. His father is a hypocrite, and Dill once trusted him. He feels betrayed, and it’s only worse since his father claims to have no blame. This is the side of Dill that’s glad he testified in court that the child pornography was not his own, never going so far as to say it was his father’s. On the other hand, Dill is also ashamed at his own lack of faith. His father, not long before he was arrested, tried to hand him one of the poisonous snake, and Dill flinched. This is the side of Dill that’s devastated that his family is broken now, the side that feels guilty for, as he’s blamed by many parishioners and even his own mother, putting his father in prison.
The Serpent King is sympathetic to these characters and, to my surprise because it is so hard to pull off, not preachy. Rather than outline a plan that would save the friends, the book explores the real difficulties standing in their way, preventing them from pursuing a life many of us feel they deserve. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths: Lydia, the one privileged enough to have a clear pathway, cares deeply about her two friends, and her advice to them — to leave their families, to chase their dreams, to never look back — is great advice and genuinely given. But Zentner deftly explores why it’s not that easy. But more than “not that easy” due to, you know, things being tough all around; Zentner offers understanding. The connection these young men feel to their families is real. They are more human for not wanting to throw it all out just to escape. In this way, Lydia is right to tell Dill and Travis to get out, that they have their own lives to live, and they are right to tell her that they’re not sure leaving is the best option, if it’s even possible.
The Serpent King is, obviously, an emotional work. We care for these characters because we see them upset, disappointed, embarrassed, and while they’re having fun, enjoying simple moments together, daring to imagine what their lives could be.