YA Foray: Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King

IMG_6429About once a year*, I read a YA book to see what the youth are up to these days (or, what publishers think the youth want to read, I guess). I’m never disappointed, for while YA isn’t my go-to bookstore section, I think YA authors tend to be folks passionate about the lives of teenagers, and that passion shows in their work.

Enter Jeff Zenter’s debut novel The Serpent King. Set in rural Tennessee, the book follows three friends through their senior year of high school. Dill is a soulful and sad musician, haunted by family history and dogged by his father’s reputation (the former minister is in jail for possession of child pornography) and his mother’s refusal to acknowledge that he might want to leave Forrestville. Lydia is a savvy fashion blogger (and fan of Donna Tartt & Leonard Cohen, so I was contractually obligated to like her, despite her annoying tendency to brush off her privilege) who dreams of moving to New York, though she’ll miss her supportive, Trader Joe’s-loving, hybrid-driving parents. Travis has a rough time at home and at work in the lumberyard, but he copes by retreating into a Game of Thrones-like fandom, not caring what anybody (including Lydia) thinks of his all-black ensembles, dragon necklace, and staff.

The novel revolves mainly around Dill, who’s distressed not only at the prospect of losing Lydia (he’s got a crush), but also at his lack of prospects. His parents have made it clear that he’s responsible for helping to pay off the debts they incurred; his mother even thinks he ought to drop out of high school.

While the trajectory of the plot is somewhat predictable, I enjoyed reading this book because Mr. Zentner depicts a segment of the population that is often overlooked. Dill and his mother are flat-out poor, and Travis’s family is just scraping by. Despite her attitude towards Dill’s education, Mrs. Early is depicted as a person who’s making choices using the arithmetic she knows, one that’s bound up with job insecurity (even with multiple jobs), no health care, and mountains of debt. She’s not a sympathetic character, but she’s understandable, not a caricature, and I think that’s important. Mr. Zentner shows readers that circumstance is a powerful force in shaping character.

And so is friendship. Forrestville has its racists and bullies, but it’s also chock full of beauty and people of outstanding moral fiber if you know where to look, and the three heroes of the tale do. It’s a pleasure to hear the sounds of night insects with them, or visit a college campus through their eyes. This book is full of heart; Mr. Zentner clearly loves his subject, looking at rural Tennessee life with affection, and with eyes wide open to its flaws.

I’d recommend this book  to YA fans and to readers (like me) who dip into the genre just once in a while.

Have you read any YA books lately?

* 2013: Sara Farizan, If You Could Be Mine

2014: John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2015: [I did say about once a year. It averages out, right?]