Alexi Zentner’s “Copperhead”

October 26th, 2019  |  Published in October 2019

“Copperhead”, a new novel by Alexi Zentner, is essential reading in today’s politically overcharged era. Inventing a university clearly based upon Cornell, in upstate New York, where the author presumably teaches, “Copperhead” presents issues regarding race and class in ways different from the dynamics and dialectics we are used to reading or hearing about. And it’s a complete page-turner in the deal; once you read the first few pages, you won’t be able to put it down until you’ve finished it–the ending’s quite a surprise and even the astute reader may not see what’s coming, although if you remember that character is consistent in novels, if not necessarily in life, you’ll have glimmers about the outcome.

A university such as Cornell is likely to have upper middle/middle class African-American students, today, as Zentner presents in his novel, who are racially charged and quick to anger at slights real and perhaps perceived.  Zentner’s main character, Jessup, is a white high school student in the town where the university is situated; he and his family live in a trailer, and Zentner brilliantly portrays the old “town/gown” tension, between the students and their privilege and the “townies” who happen to live in the town, many of whom are blue collar working families.  Jessup lives with his mother and stepfather, both complex, sensitive men (contrary to  popular belief, of course) and his younger sister; an older step brother is serving time in prison for killing two African American university students, both of whom baited this white brother because he is seen changing clothes into a uniform to perform his plumbing work, and the two students see a white supremacist tattoo on his back; violence ensues, the two students are killed in what appears to be self-defense on the worker’s part.  But the racially charged atmosphere in both the university and within the town itself are the real backdrops for this first act of violence.

Jessup is both a star football player and an excellent student; his family are members of a local white supremacist church, though he, Jessup, refuses to attend on moral principles (though his best guy friend, also a football player, is very much involved in that church). Jessup’s coach is an African-American, and Jessup’s been dating his daughter, when, after a big football game, at the after party, Jessup is continually baited by an African-American player from the losing team; Jessup’s opponent is trying to force Jessup to use the “N” word, which Jessup refuses to do (the entire scene at the party is videotaped).  In a freak accident leaving the party, where the African-American athlete is waiting again to confront/do violence to Jessup, in a massive snowstorm in the wilds of the town’s forests, Jessup truly accidentally hits the opponent and kills him in a car accident. Panicked, Jessup then makes sure that the opponent and his (Mercedes) car vanish. That’s the basic plot.

Jessup’s stepfather and one particular media genius/demon at the white supremacist church decide to do anything they can to protect Jessup, who’s told these men the truth about what’s happened. What follows is the most important part of the novel, how the media gets involved, how racial tensions escalate, how what actually happened at the party doesn’t really matter, how liberal members of the university assume Jessup to be a racist and call his a hate crime. Jessup’s girlfriend leaves him.  A media circus ensues; there’s only so much plot I want to reveal here, but the inversion of racial dynamics from the typical privileged whites wreaking havoc on black lives is brilliantly and complexly rendered.  The genuine bonding between Jessup and his stepfather, also recently out of prison, and Jessup’s relationship with his best male friend, are two of the finest recent renderings of  male/male friendships in recent literature, made even more impressive because of the reader’s typical assumptions about, if you will, the redneck /violent behavior assumed of such white men.  Jessup and his stepfather are profoundly decent men; hovering in the background is the original racial incident.  The reader is going to need to set aside certain liberal conventional wisdoms while reading this extremely important novel.  Questions about loyalty, family, race, class run throughout this brilliant novel (which I notice hasn’t gotten much media play).  When race and class intersect in both white and African-American families but are inverted in terms of racial perceptions and class itself, different ideas and conclusions may come to pass. When the privileges now belong to the black families, do perceptions change? At what point are events and people just symbols of greater social and political conflict? Do we always assume that the Jessups of the world are racists because they are lower middle class whites living in a trailer? How easy is it to manipulate the media and cause a media frenzy? What kinds of friendships can exist between blue collar high school boys? When are racial perceptions simply pawns in a larger cause?

“Copperhead” raises all of these issues, and many more. Jessup’s stepfather is one of the most fascinating and complex male characters in recent fiction, as is Jessup himself:  “Copperhead” is essential reading for anyone willing to have an open mind about racial cliches and issues, and how individual lives get caught up in larger social forces well beyond their control.  As we continue to learn more and more about the intersectionality of issues such as race and class, are we willing to see where they intersect differently than normal sociological assumptions and conventional wisdoms?

Read “Copperhead” with an open mind and you’ll find yourself confronted with issues of the day from points of view and characters we rarely hear from.  “Copperhead” is not a Charlottesville moment (Trump’s “there are good people on all sides”); it’s far more complex and subtle than that, and worth every page you’ll read and obsessively turn.

–Daniel Brown

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