“You get to a point of not giving a damn over people thinking you’re worthless,” he says. “Mainly by getting there first yourself.”
Demon is right about America’s condescending derision, but he’s wrong about his own worth. In a feat of literary alchemy, Kingsolver uses the fire of that boy’s spirit to illuminate — and singe — the darkest recesses of our country.
The essential Americanness of “Demon Copperhead” feels particularly ironic given that Kingsolver has drawn her inspiration directly from one of England’s most celebrated classics: “David Copperfield,” by Charles Dickens. In a brief afterword, Kingsolver expresses her gratitude to Dickens and acknowledges living for years “with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy.”
Indeed, anyone familiar with Dickens’s most autobiographical novel will hear its characters and incidents echoing through these chapters. And in one particularly meta-moment, Kingsolver winks at her readers when Demon praises an author he discovered in school. Charles Dickens, he says, is “one seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from around here.”
There’s no denying the pleasure of seeing Dickens’s Peggottys transformed into the kindly Peggots, or his oily villain Uriah Heep recast as a sniveling assistant football coach named U-Haul Pyles. But too much can be made of these echoes. Kingsolver hasn’t merely reclothed Dickens’s characters in modern dress and resettled them in southern Appalachia, the way some desperate Shakespeare director might reimagine “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” taking place in an Ikea. No, Kingsolver has reconceived the story in the fabric of contemporary life. “Demon Copperhead” is entirely her own thrilling story, a fierce examination of contemporary poverty and drug addiction tucked away in the richest country on Earth.
From the moment Demon starts talking to us, his story is already a boulder rolling down the Appalachian Mountains, faster and faster, stopping for nothing. “We’re one damn thing after another,” he says. “Sometimes a good day lasts all of about ten seconds.” Even before he’s born, his father, a man named Copperhead, has died under mysterious circumstances. Demon knows that his mother, bubbling with optimism and other spirits, is not to be counted on, but it’s still a shock when he loses her, too, and gets dropped into the gears of the foster-care system.
“I thought my life couldn’t get any worse,” he says. “Here’s some advice: Don’t ever think that.” He’s 10 years old.
Kingsolver has effectively reignited the moral indignation of the great Victorian novelist to dramatize the horrors of child poverty in the late 20th century. Demon’s descriptions of his life under the neglectful eye of Child Protective Services reveals one ordeal after another. Woefully overwhelmed, the state relies on placement companies, “rotating and merchandising foster boys at more than fifty customer accounts.” It’s a ghastly racket, akin to modern-day slavery, with shady foster parents signing on for the free labor and the state’s monthly checks. “Being big for your age is a trap,” Demon notes. “They send you to wherever they need a grown-up body that can’t fight back.” At its best, foster care is “like a cross between prison and dodgeball.”
And there’s the saving grace. This would be a grim melodrama if it weren’t for Demon’s endearing humor, an alloy formed by his unaffected innocence and weary cynicism. Assigned to a tobacco farm, for instance, Demon meets his new foster “dad,” Crickson, “a big, meaty guy with a red face and a greasy comb-over like fingers palming a basketball.” The derelict kitchen is covered with scum. “This man’s wife had passed away,” Demon says. “I wondered if her body was still lying somewhere back in that house, because I’d say there’d been zero tidying up around here since she kicked off.”
In such moments — and they’re everywhere in this novel — you may be reminded of another orphaned boy slipping through the country’s underbrush, just trying to stay out of trouble: Huck Finn. With Demon, Kingsolver has created an outcast equally reminiscent of Twain’s masterpiece, speaking in the natural poetry of the American vernacular.
Kingsolver’s attraction to the great 19th-century novels is not surprising. Since publishing her first novel, “The Bean Trees,” in 1988, she’s grown increasingly interested in stories that explore exigent social themes. In 2000, she established the Bellwether Prize, a $25,000 award designed to celebrate “socially engaged fiction” that addresses “issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.”
That’s a tall order, fraught with the deadening risks of polemical art, and none of the prize winners I’ve read has reached anything close to Kingsolver’s combination of subtlety and power. Now, with “Demon Copperhead,” she’s raised the bar even higher, providing her best demonstration yet of a novel’s ability to simultaneously entertain and move and plead for reform.
Much of that success stems from how cleverly Demon’s experience is woven through the tragedy of opioid addiction in the United States. This boy grows up in the early days of that miracle pill, OxyContin, and Kingsolver illustrates how a conspiracy of capitalism and criminality preyed on the pain of poor Americans to create a shockingly profitable and deadly industry.
“I don’t know a single person my age that’s not taking pills,” Demon says at one point. “If you’ve not known the dragon we were chasing, words may not help.” But these words, laid out in the achingly candid voice of a young man who barely survives, create a visceral picture of that dragon.
“Where does the road to ruin start?” Demon asks. “That’s the point of getting all this down, I’m told. To get the handle on some choice you made.” But part of his struggle involves realizing how much of this road has been laid by forces entirely outside his control. At one point, a kind woman tells Demon that he mustn’t think he has to be responsible for everything. His job, she insists, is “just to be a little boy.”
“Weird,” Demon thinks. “I’d not had that job before.”
In such tender moments, this story feels almost too much to bear.
Demon survives. On some level, we always know that; he’s the narrator, after all. But the harrowing story Kingsolver tells — including a particularly frightening climax — makes his life seem continually in peril. His resilience, in the face of so many personal tragedies and governmental failures, makes him a name to remember.
“I was starting to get known as Demon Copperhead,” he says in a rare moment of pride. “You can’t deny, it’s got a power to it.”
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
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