The lure of Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel begins with its title: "Demon Copperhead." What, now?
This sprawling, brilliant story, set in southwestern Virginia's impoverished Lee County in the 1990s and early 2000s, is a modern retelling of "David Copperfield."
You don't need to have read Charles Dickens' masterpiece to appreciate Kingsolver's work, but some familiarity will add to the appreciation: OMG, is that nasty U-Haul guy really Uriah Heep? Is fragile little addict Dori based on Dora? If so, she's doomed!
Demon Copperhead, birth name Damon Fields, is a green-eyed, red-haired lad born on the grimy floor of a trailer to a doomed teenage addict. Schoolkids twist his first name into "Demon," his last name into that of the lethal snake.
"David Copperfield," one of the finest coming-of-age tales ever written, is largely about the suffering caused by relentless poverty spawned by the greed and corruption of those in power. "Demon Copperhead" is about America's most impoverished, disadvantaged demographic — those who populate the remote hills and coal towns of Appalachia.
Demon Copperhead narrates his own story in a witty cadence. His early childhood is shaped by his childlike mother, who is either out-of-her-mind high or in rehab; his saving grace is the nearby Peggot family, whose elders shower him with kindness.
When his mother dies, Demon lands in the foster home from hell, a foul farm whose owner uses several "sons" as slave labor. There Demon meets the enigmatic teenager Fast-Forward, a hero to all who know him, especially the young women — until he betrays them like the smooth snake he is.
As he enters his teen years, Demon's fortunes turn — he is taken in by relatives of his dead father who give him food, shelter and love. He becomes a high school football star and a magnet to many a teenage girl.
After a knee injury, he becomes addicted to painkillers. Most of his story is about his struggle with addiction, along with the similar nightmares faced by his friends and enemies.
"What's an oxy, I'd asked," Demon writes. "OxyContin, God's gift for the laid-off deep-hole man with his back and neck bones grinding like bags of gravel. For the bent-over lady pulling double shifts with her shot knees and ADHD grandkids to raise by herself. For every football player with some of this or that torn up, and the whole world riding on his getting back in the game. This was our deliverance."
Despite its bulk — almost 600 pages — "Demon Copperhead" is a page-turner, and Kingsolver's best novel by far. That's saying something — she's written many brilliant ones, including "The Poisonwood Bible" and "Flight Behavior."
This novel's oomph lies in its narration — a taut, witty telling by Damon, long grown, about his mine-laden youth.
Its only flaw also lies in that narration, when Kingsolver wanders off from the story at hand to lay out long, didactic sermons about what is wrong with America today.
It's not that she isn't right. But if we're reading Demon Copperhead's account of troubles at his high school when some teenagers drive a pickup flying a Confederate flag past a Black teacher, we get that that's racist, and why — Demon tells that story well, but then we read on and suddenly we're not reading Demon, but Barbara Kingsolver.
And yet, there is less of that flawed Kingsolver veering than usual in this novel. For the most part, the writing is fine, so much so that you'll stop to reread some parts aloud, just to salute them.
Kingsolver has some of Mark Twain in her, along with 21st-century gifts of her own. More than ever, she is our literary mirror and window. May this novel be widely read and championed.
Pamela Miller is a retired Star Tribune night metro editor. She lives in Old Frontenac, Minn., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Barbara Kingsolver.
Publisher: Harper, 560 pages, $29.99.