Small towns lend themselves to a particular kind of desperation, a feral desire among some of the young to move elsewhere and become their true selves, away from the naysayers and the predestined future born of a certain surname. Teaching most of my career in schools where everybody knew this was nowhere, I’ve shared with some of these students that, wherever you go, there you are. But for others, the only leavening was in the leaving. Dillard (Dill) Early, Jr., the main character of Jeff Zentner’s superb The Serpent King, is one such young man:
“Times are simpler when no one hates you because of your name and it doesn’t occur to you to be ashamed of it” (64).
Times are simpler when your father is known only as a Pentecostal minister in rural Tennessee, a handler of snakes and a drinker of poison. Simpler, at least, than having your father known as a convicted possessor of child pornography. Simpler than having to handle the snakes who hiss in the school hallways, simpler than the sadness that engulfs your mother with your father in prison. Simpler by far than the serpents of your family’s history that poison your mind and pin you in a place you know you need to leave.
The Serpent King is not just Dill’s story: it is also the story of Dill’s two friends and classmates, Lydia and Travis. Lydia, the hipster lifestyle blogger who seems oblivious to Dill’s desire to become more than friends. Travis, the gentle ginger man mountain who buries his own familial fear and sadness in the epic fantasy world of a book series. Lydia, destined for bigger and brighter things, struggles to help Dill and Travis find some of their own light.
Zentner rotates his third-person narration among Dill, Travis, and Lydia, filling in the stories of their families and their friendship. Dill and Travis face the tough question of what we owe our families, especially when their dreams deny our own.
All three learn the painful truths about love and loss, including one of the ultimate truths: The truth about forever is that it doesn’t have to be spent here, but there is always a cost to leaving.