Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Review: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Title: The Serpent King
Author: Jeff Zentner
Rating: 4 Stars
The Serpent King is the type of book you hear everything and nothing about, simultaneously. It won't stop cropping up on your newsfeed or hitting those "Best of 2016" lists, but no matter how many reviews you read or how many times you re-read the synopsis, you still have no idea what it's about. Having finished the Zentner's debut, I finally get it: The Serpent King is a difficult book to pin down and explain away with a brief synopsis. Its strength lies in more than its plot and it seems a disservice to try and reduce this story to a few sentences; but I will try.
Dill, the grandson of the "Serpent King" and son of a preacher who is behind bars, believes he is doomed to live out his life in Forrestville, Tennessee, a small town named after the founder of the KKK. His mother is a Good Christian Woman but instead of encouraging Dill to apply to college, she is convinced that his path lies in staying home to pay off the mountain of debt that his father left them with when he was dragged to jail. Dill's two best friends, Lydia and Travis, don't have the burden of their father or grandfather's legacy upon their shoulders. Though Travis is entirely misunderstood by his father, who often beats him and has only become worse after the death of his older brother Matt, it is Dill who is spat at and ridiculed in his hometown. Lydia, in comparison, is the only one of the trio heading off to college. Her parents are supporting and loving, her online fashion blog is an enormous hit, and there is very little doubt in anyone's mind that NYU will accept her early decision. She doesn't have Dill's debts, Travis's father, and either of their religious teachings burdening her.
The Serpent King alternates between the point of views of these three characters as they navigate their senior year. The final year of high school is equally nostalgic and exciting; for people like Lydia, it means finally leaving her small town to experience the world but for people like Dill and Travis, who are staying to work in Forrestville for the rest of their lives, it is a bittersweet moment as they realize that their trio is going to be broken up. For me, the strength of this novel lies in the honesty with which Zentner writes this tale. Though Dill and Travis, in particular, have a whole slew of problems that mark them apart from a typical high school teenager--after all, Dill has to visit his father in the Nashville prison more frequently than he'd like and Travis lives in constant fear of his father--The Serpent King is very much about their fears and worries and longings which are exceedingly normal. They want to be kissed, they want to figure out their future, they want to pursue their passions, they want to stay together as this perfect trio forever, they want high school to end, they never want high school to end...I could relate, even though my upbringing has never been anything like theirs.
I rarely give much thought to students who graduate high school and work. I'm fortunate enough to have grown up in a town where the very vast majority of my high school class graduated and went to college. The fact that Zentner paints Dill and Travis just as normal and utterly relate-able as Lydia, who works on her college applications late into the night and is both excited and upset to be leaving Forrestville for New York City, is what makes The Serpent King pack a punch. We grow to care for these characters, even Dill whose parents believe that judgement comes from being able to touch snakes or Travis who lives for his favorite fantasy series and is perfectly content working in a lumberyard. The plot isn't fast-paced or action-filled, but I loved being in Dill's head as he struggled to come to terms with his passion for music and dream of pursuing it in college, as Travis realized that he loves fantasy so much that maybe he could write it, as Lydia grew to confront her love for her friends alongside her desire to leave behind her old life.
I'm not quite sure why The Serpent King has gotten the rave reviews it's gotten; it's excellent, but I didn't love it. I do appreciate that it puts lower-income students into a wonderful spotlight that never makes it seem that their privilege (or lack of privilege) is depressing. I also enjoyed the nods to religion that never overpower the storyline. Zentner perfectly captures what it's like to want to become a completely different person from your parents while also seeking their approval. There is much to love in The Serpent King and I recommend it whole-heartedly. It's the type of book that is extremely readable, despite its veneer of being an "issue" novel. But, here's my caveat: don't expect the "Best Book of 2016" and perhaps you'll be even more pleasantly surprised.