Coming of age in small-town Tennessee
by One-Minute Book Reviews: Laura Stevenson
Oct 31, 2016 | 1535 views | 0 0 comments | 88 88 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“The Serpent King” by Jeff Zentner, 2016

Dill Early, Travis Bohannon, and Lydia Blankenship live in Forrestville, Tennessee – a town of about 4,000 named for the founder of the KKK. An outsider would think they had little in common. Dill is a musician, but he’s better known as the son of a Pentecostal preacher once locally infamous for proving his faith by holding venomous snakes without being poisoned, but now publicly disgraced (and imprisoned) for collecting child pornography. Travis, the 6’6” son of the town’s lumber dealer and the younger brother of a high school football star killed in Afghanistan, is immersed in the fan-fiction that has grown up around Bloodfall, a fantasy series remotely resembling Game of Thrones. And Lydia, the daughter of the town’s well-to-do dentist and his professional wife, is a fashionista whose blog Dollywould has gained her a substantial following online. What they have in common is outcast status at Forrestville High, and a deep friendship that bonds them despite their vast differences in class and interests. That friendship takes them to Nashville to shop for vintage clothes, to the forlorn town park from which they watch trains roar by, and most memorably, to the trestle bridge high above the river, where they discuss what they would like to leave behind for people to remember.

This year, the three are threatened by something far more serious than the high school bullies who jeer at Travis’s wizard’s staff, Lydia’s period clothes, and Dill’s father’s disgrace. They are seniors. What’s going to happen to them? There’s no question for Lydia. She has the money, the grades, and the drive to apply to NYU early decision. And that automatically leaves the boys behind. Insofar as he has plans, Travis wants to save money for a laptop and write fantasy himself, while working in town. As for Dill, his parents didn’t finish high school. His father’s court case and his mother’s car accident have left the family over a quarter of a million dollars in debt. His parents think education is at best useless and at worst Godless; both of them see Dill’s desire to finish high school as a sign of weak faith. Lydia, however, wants him to go to college, and won’t accept his view that it’s both financially and socially impossible. That is where things stand when undeserved tragedy changes the friendship forever.

This is a deeply moving book, one set in a landscape whose beauties and complexities Zentner portrays with all the love and sorrow of a native. To this intimate portrait, Zentner adds an element rarely seen in coming-of-age fiction: the intersection of pop culture, the internet, and the realities of small town life. Lydia’s blog rewards her years of fanatical devotion by getting her an internship in New York City. Travis’s fan-fiction interchanges find him a girl friend and inspire him to write. Dill, whose performances have hitherto been limited to the music in his father’s church, records a few of his songs on the computer Lydia gives him, sends them to her -- and, because she has re-tweeted them to her followers, gains an audience of over a thousand in a couple of hours. Zentner implies that small towns no longer restrict the imagination, but he understands human limitation too well to assert that the internet makes it easy for a young person to escape the bonds of family and the wreckage of the past.

Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.

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