“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”
― Jeff Zentner, The Serpent King
While our classmates are getting zongered at the Holiday Inn in Cookeville and getting pregnant, you and I will be playing in the sprinkler and looking up at the stars until your curfew. ― Jeff Zentner, The Serpent King
After his father, the magnetic preacher of a full-on “speaking-in-tongues and handling snakes” church is sent to prison, Dillard Early Jr. has the weight of the world thrust upon his shoulders at the young age of fourteen. Shunned by his rural Tennessee community and by his father’s acolytes, Dillard just wants to be left alone. A gentle-hearted and fantasty-novel-obsessed teenage parishioner from his church, Travis, remains his sole friend. They pass time working part-time jobs, watching trains pass through their small town, and avoiding encounters with their families. Lydia, wealthy in things both boys dream of – a loving family and financial stability – becomes fast friends with the two other “outcasts.” From their freshman year on, the three of them become inseparable.
Dill isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life, but his main goal is to grow up to not be like his father. He is torn between wanting to follow his own dreams while being being a good son and a faithful disciple of Christ. Now that his dad is in jail, his mom works non-stop to put a dent in their accumulated debt. Meanwhile, Dill is barely surviving in school and at home. He takes solace from time with his friends, particularly Lydia, as well as writing songs on his guitar.
He can’t see his way out from the burdens of his parents. He takes his setbacks as signs that he is a bad Christian and that if only he were a better son and a better “son of God,” he would receive blessings and guidance.
I really loved the way the author portrayed the differences between the “haves” and “have-nots.” How things are never as simple as they seem. How easy it is for someone to speak up and do the “logical” thing, at least in their eyes, because they won’t face repercussions. The “haves” don’t have to sleep in their car after being kicked out of their home. They don’t have to “just keep their heads down” and survive one more day so they can finally get out. They don’t have to seriously think about what they will do after graduation as they are not reminded daily of their obligations, financial and familial, which they cannot abandon.
Lydia is kind of an asshole, but she can’t be fully blamed for her obliviousness. She is shunned by her peers, but she leans into it. There are no real repercussions for her failure to conform. Aside from academics, her future does not depend on the town in which she lives. One thing that surprises me is that, despite her parents growing up here, Lydia does not seem to have any connection to the town or to its people. She mocks it openly and acts holier-than-thou at every opportunity. However, it is where her parents come from and there is a good chance that this town will continue to play a large part in her life.
Meanwhile, with the have-nots: poor Dill. From the very beginning, he is aching for what he will lose in a year when Lydia goes off to follow her dreams in New York. I am grateful that he was not the typical “wearing stained clothes that he hand washed in the back of his trailer,” hero of so many other popular YA novels. If I have to see another “poverty Einstein,” I’m going to walk away. Dill is neither particularly gifted in school nor social skills, but he is a talented musician, which is one of the few good things to come out of his father’s church. Despite the many drawbacks, church provided an outlet for his musical creativity and a place where he received encouragement and support as he learned to play the guitar, sing, and write new music.
Lydia, like so many well-off kids, does not understand that Dill’s issues cannot be solved with money or by a new attitude. She sees herself as a sort of “savior” as she tries to talk her friends into leaving their hometown and going to college. It has always been a foregone conclusion that she will be one of the ones to “get out.” But she will always have loving parents to welcome her home no matter what she does. She has the support, confidence, and the financial cushion to fuck up and recover. Dill and Travis don’t have even a fraction of what she does.
I read this book in two days. It skirted the line of southern-fried cliche but managed to come out genuine and charming, which is hard to do. There were a few plot points that I could see coming from miles away. While I was annoyed at these, the familiar beats weren’t annoying enough for me to stop reading.