You have to read this book, okay?
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for offensive language, child abuse, and domestic violence.)
“I ain’t never seen anything like the way grief rotted that man from the inside out. Chewed him up. That’s when folks started calling him the Serpent King. They wasn’t trying to be ugly or funny. They was just trying to make some sense of it, I guess. Folks do that when they scared. Folks is afraid of grief. Think it’s catching, like a disease.”
He looked up, straight into Lydia’s eyes. Her eyes were filled with … what? A new something he had never seen before in her. He couldn’t name it, but it made him strong. It swept the black-red from the margins of his eyes and turned the contemptuous crowd beneath him into a faceless blob. It made his heart beat a different rhythm.
He shone bright, as if burned clean by fire.
I started The Serpent King at 4PM on a Thursday afternoon. That night, I stayed up until nearly 2AM to finish it. I didn’t mean to – it just kind of happened, against my better judgment. (I was a bit of a wreck the next day, in every way possible.) Afterwards I lay awake for several hours, my nightly dose of melatonin doing little to calm my racing thoughts. Once I finally drifted off, it worked its way into my dreams. My two living girls (Rennie and Mags; they’re rat terriers, yo!) were there, and it was beautiful. And upon waking, Travis and Lydia and Dill were the first thing thing to break through the haze. Their story brought tears to my eyes. Again. This is one amazing book, y’all.
The story centers on three best friends who are about to start their senior year of high school. Forrestville High, located in Forrestville, Tennessee, so named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK. To say that they’re the high school misfits doesn’t quite do it justice. Or at least, not in Dill’s case.
Dillard Wayne Early Jr. is the son of Pastor Early of the Church of Christ’s Disciples with Signs of Belief. His father’s church is known for incorporating snake handling and the drinking of strychnine and other poisons into its services. (The speaking of tongues? That’s a little more mundane ’round these parts.) Several years ago, Dill Sr. was tried and convicted of possession of child pornography – pornography that his lawyers unsuccessfully argued belonged to twelve-year-old Dill. While the jurors believed Dill’s testimony that he had nothing to do with it, the stink never quite washed off. Whether people (including his own mother) believe that Dill’s a pervert or just the son of one, he’s a social pariah either way.
Dill’s secretly in love with his best friend Lydia Blankenship. He also not-so-secretly resents her because she’s about to leave him behind. Lydia’s more of a misfit by choice – but a misfit with long-term vision. Her fashion and pop culture blog, Dollywould (started at the tender of of thirteen), is her ticket out of Forrestville – and hopefully into NYU. It’s easy to see why Dill adores Lydia so: she’s whip-smart, brimming with witty rejoinders, and hip AF. Plus she cares about Dill, and pushes him to care about himself – and his future.
Whereas Dill’s mom Crystal would rather he drop out of school and go full-time at Floyd’s grocery to help pay off “the family’s” debts, Lydia won’t stop hounding him about college. Of course it’s easy for her to talk; the daughter of a dentist and real estate agent, Lydia doesn’t have to worry about money – or the crushing blow of low expectations. (She’s even got three whole bedrooms to herself: one for sleeping, one for dressing, and a third for sewing!) But Lydia sees potential in Dill, and she is a girl with a plan.
Rounding out the trio is the red-headed, gentle giant (all 6’6″, 250 pounds of him) Travis Bohannon. He works in his dad’s lumberyard and is more or less content with his path in life. He enjoys using his hands to fix things, but Travis’s real delight is in books. Specifically, fantasy. The Bloodfall series in particular.
Travis’s dad is pretty much the worst: a mean drunk; a sexist, racist, homophobic bully; and a verbally and physically abusive father and husband. He loathes everything about his son: his affable demeanor; the soft spot he has for his mother; his all-black wardrobe; his cheesy dragon necklace and wizard staff; his love of books (especially those about ‘wizards and shit’); his friends (perverts and “dykes”); his disinterest in sports; and his lack of success with the ladies. Dill can relate, since his parents have seemingly also made crushing his spirit their number one priority.
What first piqued my interest in The Serpent King was the snake handling. Ever since my freshman year course on the Anthropology of Religion, I’ve been fascinated by fringe religions and cults. (Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia was on the syllabus; from what I remember of it, it’s a great read.) In reality, the snakes are more of a metaphor: for the potentially poisonous nature of grief and depression, especially when allowed to go untreated or even unaddressed.
While Pastor Early was the first in his family to take up snake handling, his is not the first life touched by serpents. After his sister Ruth died of a snakebite, his father Dillard Wayne Early Sr., mad with grief, went on a snake-killing spree, earning him the nickname “The Serpent King.” Pastor Early’s obsession with creepy-crawlies clearly took a different path: whereas his father saw evil in their eyes, Pastor Early sees salvation. Dill, on the other hand? He wants nothing to do with them – or his father’s scary-weird church – yet he feels fated by his family’s bloodline just the same.
Anyway, while religion is clearly a minor theme of the book, The Serpent King is about so much more than snake handling and speaking in tongues. It’s about standing up to bullies – even those with whom you happen to share a last name. About taking and making family where you can find it. Forging your own path in life, even (especially) if it scares the hell out of you. The shackles of low expectations – and the importance of having at least one caring adult who sees you for you, and believes that you can make a difference in the world. The escapism offered by books – and, conversely, the transformative power wielded by the extra-special ones (wherein “special” is in the eye of the beholder). Knowing when to back down, and when to walk away.
Zentner’s writing is poetry in motion; a quiet kind of music that dances off the page and right into your heart. He has an uncanny knack for characterization; I really feel as though I know Travis, Lydia, and Dill, but would love to get to know them even better. Like, IRL friends. Lydia in particular is just the best. Though I didn’t think I’d find much to relate to in a fashion blogger, some of her lines are among my favorites. To wit:
“We need some clothes-trying-on-montage music—‘Let’s Hear It for the Boy’ or something. And at one point you come out of the dressing room wearing a gorilla costume or something, and I shake my head immediately.”
“Oh come on, Travis. You have a beautiful body. Dill, tell Travis he has a beautiful body.”
“I think Travis has Bloodfallen for this girl. See what I did there?”
“Oh, and the best part is that because I’m not an awful, gross dude, the keyboard is one hundred percent semen free.”
I just want to go for a ride in Al Gore and let Lydia dress me in some cute vintage clothes. Says the girl whose fashion sense is more Travis than anything else.
The Serpent King is light and laughter and love…and also tears and tragedy and heartbreak. This book will tear your heart into one thousand and one pieces and then slowly and methodically stitch it back together, leaving an even stronger, shinier, fuller muscle beating in your chest cavity.
My all-time favorites list is dominated by SF/F and dystopias – Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy; Kindred and the Parables duology by Octavia Butler – but The Serpent King might just be the first/only contemporary YA book to break into the top twenty. If there’s an ounce of fairness in the world, it will become a classic. It’s that good.
Like, already-time-for-a-re-read-because-I-devoured-it-too-quickly-the-first-time good.
10/5 stars good.
So, so freaking good.
In summary, I feel richer for having read it. How often can you say that?
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Dill’s grandfather, also named Dillard Wayne Early, fell into a deep depression (and possible psychosis) after his young daughter Ruth was bitten by a snake and died. Eventually he committed suicide at her grave. Dill’s father was the one who found his body. Dill’s father went on to become Pastor Early at the Church of Christ’s Disciples with Signs of Belief; snake handling and the drinking of strychnine and other poisons are featured prominently in their services.
When Dill was twelve, his father was imprisoned for possession of child porn. Pastor Early’s lawyers tried to claim the images belonged to Dill – but when he was called to testify for the prosecution, Dill denied it. Dill’s mother and father – as well as some former parishioners – blame him for his father’s imprisonment. His mother even believes that the porn was his, since he was never able to handle snakes in church – a sign of his unholiness.
One night, when she was driving home from prison, Dill’s mom got into a car accident that put her in a coma. Several years later, she still suffers from back pain. She’s not always able to afford the painkillers prescribed by her doctor, even though she works two jobs/six days a week. Between the lawyer’s fees and medical bills, the Early family is ~$270,000 in debt. Crystal wants Dill to drop out of high school (where he’s a senior) and go full-time at Floyd’s grocery so he can help pay “the family’s” debts off. College is out of the question.
Travis’s older brother Matt died in Afghanistan. His father is a racist, sexist, homophobic bully and alcoholic who verbally and physically abuses both Travis and his mother. When Travis confides in Dill, he makes Dill promise not to tell their friend Lydia of the abuse; he knows that Lydia will insist on calling the police, but the family needs the income provided by dad’s business, Bohannon Lumber, which would surely be shut down in his absence. After one especially vicious fight, Travis’s dad kicks him out of the house, and he ends up surreptitiously living with Dill/in his car.
One night while he’s selling firewood in the park, Travis is shot and killed in a botched robbery. In the wake of his death, Dill slips into a deep depression and comes close to committing suicide. Travis’s mom leaves her abusive husband.
Alex Jimenez is the only Latino at Forrestville High. Travis intervenes one day at school when Alex is trying to goad Dill into a fight; Travis shoves Alex, who accidentally hits his head on a table and has seizures. Horrified, he immediately rushes to Alex’s aid and starts crying over what he’s done. Travis’s dad, however, has never been prouder of his gentle giant of a son. (“You gonna kick some beaner ass again this year?”)
Animal-friendly elements: Travis’s abusive father is a bowhunter, so there you go.