Copperhead by Alexi Zentner (audio)

I was quite entranced by Touch and so I jumped into Copperhead with nothing but the author to go on. It’s quite a different book, ambitious, and good, but flawed. This novel takes on the timely – not to say trendy – topic of race and racism in contemporary America. I don’t question Zentner’s earnest commitment to the topic, but it’s a tricky thing to execute seriously in fiction without getting a little overwrought.

Our protagonist is 17-year-old Jessup, a high school senior in Cortaca, New York (a thinly disguised Ithaca, with Cortaca University obviously Cornell). He’s a talented football player and excellent student, but still wrong-side-of-the-tracks because of his family’s hand-to-mouth existence, the trailer they live in, and the fact that his brother and step-father are serving prison sentences for the deaths of two Black college students in what was either self defense or a hate crime, depending on who’s telling the story. Jessup’s mother and sister still attend the Blessed Church of the White America. Jessup would tell you he’s not a racist; his girlfriend is Black. He resents that people judge him for his family history and their association with the white supremacist church.

This is all background information; the novel’s action takes place over four days, Friday night’s football game through Monday night’s protests, but it is action-packed. What might be called a series of unfortunate events explodes into increasing posturing, grandstanding, violence. Jessup is pressured to choose sides. Zentner’s greatest accomplishment is the empathy his reader feels for this kid. We don’t like to spend much of our compassion on white supremacists, but this novel ticks boxes for two intellectual puzzles I’ve long been interested in: 1, the concept that bigots are made or taught, not born, and there’s somebody there, at some early-enough point, that I do feel for. And 2, the question of when we begin to hold a person responsible for his own crimes – the abused child we feel for, but when he grows up to be an abuser we don’t; at what age or stage is the cut-off? I feel like Jessup’s character begs both these questions. He is in some ways a good kid. And while he’s far more fair-minded than some of his family and church, he’s also a white supremacist, by default rather than by hate. The puzzle of Jessup himself I think is well-expressed; we stay with his close third-person perspective throughout the novel, and I find it easy to like and sympathize with him, even though he’s problematic too. I find it realistic that (especially) a 17-year-old boy with such a troubled past would have the kinds of blind spots that Jessup has. That doesn’t mean I think it’s all okay, but I think it’s realistic.

The events that kick off (no pun intended) the weekend’s action are a bit contrived, in terms of narrative: a perfect-storm sequence. Sometimes life really does work in such strange ways, but it is also clearly a novelistic device to get the issues moving that Zentner needs to address. That’s more or less okay with me, but the mechanics of plot here are showing a bit more than some might like. Characters other than Jessup are less well developed than he is (also understandable; a lot has been put into this protagonist, and there’s less left over for everybody else). Things get a little ham-fisted with the stepfather, David John, who is just such a great guy aside from the white supremacist business… and this allows Jessup to wonder how it’s possible for a racist to be such a deeply decent dude? (The answer, staggeringly obvious to everyone but Jessup, is that he’s deeply decent to white people. But honestly, I do buy Jessup’s blindness on this account – again, as one of those believable blind spots. Seventeen years old!) Where the novel goes most wrong is in the final events and epilogue: wrapping up this complicated and fraught story is a challenge, and Zentner was maybe a little overcommitted to a redemption narrative. Only in the final pages (minutes, in my audiobook) does the novel, which excels in drawing out my sympathies, descend into morality tale. It gets a little graceless. Again, Zenter’s earnest good intentions are not in question, and it’s a pretty good morality tale, one that will yield good discussions in classrooms and book clubs. But as a novel, the last bit is a bit cringey.

There are some beautiful, moving, thoughtful moments, and absolutely memorable images, and I think Jessup’s character is all win. The complexities of family, legacy, and the taught-and-learned nature of hate are well illustrated. Copperhead took on an ambitious mission, and as a novel, doesn’t quite stand up to that tall order, but it gives us plenty to think about. I think its greatest accomplishment was in how much I empathized with Jessup, and how uncomfortable I felt with my own empathy – not always a pleasurable experience, but an instructive one. I was certainly engaged throughout, and I do recommend this read, with a few caveats. I respect Zentner’s work here, and I’ll look for more from him.


Rating: 7 text messages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: