I could not put down this propulsive Appalachian song of self. It is simultaneously a brilliant bildungsroman in which we root on the hero and a seething indictment of the treatment of America’s rural poor, with laser-like focus on the opioid crisis still unfolding in our country. Not many novels can accomplish both agendas without sacrificing believability, but Kingsolver nails the landing. One of the things that makes the novel remarkable, and compulsively readable is that for all the grisly and dark details of a boy born into the worst of circumstances (a single mother battling addiction, abject poverty, an abusive boyfriend in the picture), we find hope. There are many recursions and parallels in the novel, yet they often run askew of repetitious, with just enough slippage to invite the light in. For example, Demon’s father dies of drowning at the Devil’s Bathtub, sending Demon’s mother into a downward spiral. His death more or less forecloses on what might have been a true love story and happy ending. Demon returns to that site (and as he approaches the hollow, our hearts race with foreboding) and witnesses another gruesome death there, but this time of an evil man he’d once admired. Unlike his mother, Demon uses the climax to turn his life around, entering rehab, escaping Lee County. History need not repeat itself.
On a prose level, Kingsolver’s Nabokovian playfulness with language and especially naming — Demon is actually Damon; Angus is actually Agnes; and the text is rife with riffs on names from Dickens’ David Copperfield (more on that later) — operates in much the same way: a single syllabic substitution, or an inversion of letters, invites new meanings, new endings. In this way, possibility is something narratively ordained. Because of this, I did not leave the novel with a rock in my soul, as I did after finishing Shuggie Bain, another story of a poor boy sustaining the worst of the world’s abuse. I left thinking that somehow, even the most rotten of happenings cannot drive humanity out.
But let’s talk about Demon, and his rhapsodic, idiomatic confessional. He is wry but feeling, self-deprecating and determined. He is insightful in the best way, seeing all the way around even the ugliest of pictures, and grasping the nuance with wit and perspicacity. There is a section where he’s fallen through the cracks of the foster system and turned up as unpaid labor on a tobacco farm in which he and other orphans start taking drugs (“pharm parties”) to escape. Demon says: “A ten-year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we’re meant to say: look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words don’t pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all of the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands.” In spite of this incisive capture of institutional poverty, he gives people chances, seeing the good in Tommy Waddles when others see only a soft soul to be taken advantage of, or otherwise spurn. He does not let the toughness of his life close up his heart. He loves his ruinous girlfriend (against all reason; I could not bear that section); he hurts but forgives when old family friends refuse to take him in; he shows up for the people who depend on him time and time again, even when he is strung out and suffering withdrawal. He is artful, and imaginative, and his comics save him in many instances, whether winning people over, earning him a little pocket cash, or affording him the space to make sense of the injustices of his world. It is not difficult to see the point Kingsolver is making here: art saves lives. Later in the novel, Demon’s comic strips are picked up by newspapers, and they become a telephone to the outside world, too: art can also shape history.
I make a point of avoiding all critical matter about a book before reading it, but halfway through this one, a friend mentioned that Demon Copperhead is based on Dickens’ David Copperfield, which I’ve never read. I do not feel shorted by the lack of context here, because I found the link itself yet another example of history running shy of repetitious: David and Demon are two poor boys, an ocean and 150 years removed, finding their ways through an unfeeling world, and living to tell the tale. Both critique institutional poverty, but Demon’s story is embroiled in newer-fangled social problems (drugs being a big one). At one point in the novel, Demon reads “the Charles Dickens one” and says: “Seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody’s given a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from around here.”
All in, this book handily flew into “top five books I’ve read in the last decade,” the other few being Circe by Madeline Miller, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet snuck up on me — I rarely go a few weeks without thinking of it. Interestingly, four of the five are re-imaginings / adaptations / otherwise heavy draws on pre-existing cultural phenomena (Shakespeare x 2, Greek mythology, Dickens) but always completely non-derivative, born anew. It’s almost as if these extraordinary writers use the tension of source material to draw their own brilliances out. Here’s the pole: let me plant my flag off the end.
+I am currently enduring the worst book hangover. Nothing fills the void! A girlfriend of mine pointed me in the direction of Barbara Kingsolver’s Instagram account and specifically this post, where she shared what she’s reading. I already have two in her lineup in my TBR pile: North Woods by Daniel Mason and Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. Also high on my list: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. I’ve lost track of the number of times you have recommended this to me. However, I need a break from the heartaches, so I’ll probably read a mystery or romance before I tap back in.
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+In my continuing quest for great sweats: about to try these from Quince. The petal pink sold me! They have a few different sweat pant styles — I chose these, but these are also reminding me of the Frank and Eileen ones.
+This tote is in my cart. I don’t need another straw tote…right?!
+Tilly has been picky about eating, and the vet advised us to give her Farmer’s Dog or Royal Canine wet food vs the dry kibble she’s used to — basically, give her anything she’ll eat. I signed up for the Farmer’s Dog, which is currently running a 50% off your first order promo. I’m auspicious because we found something similar in our local Whole Foods (called Fresh Pet) and Tilly gobbled it right up. The Farmer’s Dog is pricey but less expensive than Fresh Pet at WF, plus I don’t need to stay on top of picking it up all the time as it’s shipped automatically.
+Keep coming back to these Gucci flats.
+These wood planters are so gorgeous, and currently on super sale. Great way to begin to think about spring plantings. Also love this scalloped umbrella stand from the same collection and also on sale.
+Hot pink croc flats! I own this exact style in a few colors and they are crazy comfortable.
+This Matilda Goad for Anthro rug is adorable.