The title of Jeff Zentner’s remarkably sensitive debut novel, The Serpent King, is a bit deceptive, suggesting something in the fantasy realm rather than the sometimes tender, sometimes tragic, profoundly affecting portrait of three young friends navigating the slings and arrows of late adolescence in rural Tennessee.
The serpents in the novel appear in its backstory. Dill Early, the novel’s main protagonist, is branded by his family history: his imprisoned father was the pastor of a congregation of Pentecostal snake-handlers; his grandfather became known as the “Serpent King” after developing a deranged obsession with snakes in the wake of a family tragedy. With his father incarcerated and in heavy debt, Dill and his mother have been left impoverished and outcast. Dill’s only solace comes through his friendships with fellow misfits Lydia and Travis and his gifts as a singer-songwriter, which he hides from everyone but his two friends. The three friends seem to have little in common other than their mutual status as oddballs — which is more than enough, it seems, to help them forge the kind of bonds they couldn’t likely survive without.
But all things must pass, and with the end of high school looming, Dill is facing down a bleak and lonely future. Lydia — the figurative glue of the group — will be moving on to college, most likely far away; Travis will likely settle in Forrestville, working at the lumber yard and disappearing into the imaginary world of his beloved fantasy novels and the online forums where he connects with other obsessive fans. Travis must choose either to remain in Forrestville, where he has become a pariah thanks to his father’s sins, or to leave home and abandon his mother, a devout Pentecostal deeply suspicious of the modern world.
Jeff Zentner, a songwriter and musician who has recorded with major acts like Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, and Debbie Harry , got inspired to write YA fiction by volunteering at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, where he was reminded of the struggles and hardships of adolescence and discovered an urge to tell stories for and about the lives of young people. With The Serpent King, he has achieved something extraordinary, at once capturing the laughter, heartache, and yearning of growing up, in a setting that is both distinct and universal. Dill Early’s circumstances are highly uncommon and his problems profound, but you don’t have to have a snake-handling daddy in the pokey to know what it means to feel trapped, or torn between your family’s expectations and your own hopes, or misunderstood by almost everyone, or afraid to show the world who you really are, or — as Zentner writes near the novel’s conclusion — to struggle to find the courage to do “painful, brave, and beautiful things.” I hope you’ll enjoy reading the book as much as I did — and as much as I enjoyed discussing it in this interview with Zentner.
– Ed Tarkington
Author, Only Love Can Break Your Heart
ET: The defining aspect of Dill Early’s life is his family history with snakes—first through his grandfather, the titular “Serpent King,” and later through his father, an imprisoned preacher from a Pentecostal snake-handling church. What drew you to snake-handling as a subject for your novel? What kind of research did you conduct on the snake-handling congregations of Tennessee?
JZ: I’ve been fascinated by snakehandling for more than a decade. I played in a band called Creech Holler that played electric versions of Appalachian ballads. We adopted snakehandler imagery as a tribute and as a shorthand signifier for the urgency, passion, fervor, danger, and Southernness we hoped our music would convey. So that it wasn’t a hollow tribute, I did a lot of research about snakehandling sects. One of my main sources of information was the excellent book Salvation on Sand Mountain. I also spoke with a friend who had attended services at a snakehandling church in North Georgia.
I was interested in including snakehandling in my novel because it provided me with an excellent way to talk about a certain type of religious faith–one that emphasizes tests and signs of faith–and contrast it with the quieter, more ambiguous sort of faith that Dill has to develop. The sort of faith where you know that God loves you even if you aren’t able to pick up a poisonous serpent.
ET: We Nashvillians are a proud people. Local readers will enjoy seeing Nashville make a few cameo appearances in The Serpent King. But a big part of what’s at stake here is the sharp contrast between the increasingly urban and cosmopolitan Southern city and these small, rural, extremely conservative hamlets like Forrestville, which make up much of the South. One of the strongest themes in your novel is the complicated relationship between these two worlds and the way the young people growing up in small towns feel torn between their families and traditions and the allure of places like Nashville. Is this a theme you were working on consciously, or was it a natural byproduct of the story you have to tell?
JZ: I was working on this consciously, and Nashville was one of the most perfect cities imaginable to highlight this contrast. Nashville is a large, urbane city, but its cultural heartbeat is country music — a fundamentally rural art form. So urban and rural sensibilities exist side by side in Nashville more comfortably than in just about any American city I’ve ever seen. And at the same time, there’s a tension there, as rural America is commodified, polished up, packaged, and sold to the rest of world from Nashville.
I should add, tangentially, that I have boundless love for Nashville and it will be the setting for my second book, which will feature a cameo from one of The Serpent King gang. I realized after I finished The Serpent King that I hadn’t scratched my Nashville itch and I needed to set a whole book there. And even then I’m not sure it’s been scratched completely. This is a great, great place. It’s my home.
ET: In a lot of Southern novels, there’s a kind of country-song romanticism given to rural towns — as if, for all of their shortcomings, they represent a kind of throwback wholesomeness that’s lost in the big city. Not so in The Serpent King; indeed, it seems that the only way for these kids to move forward with their lives is to escape the place they’ve come from. Is this something you feel strongly about? Are the small towns out-of-touch, or is it simply that these kids are too unique to thrive in them?
JZ: Actually, where my heart lies is in Lydia’ dad’s line, when he says, “People lead quiet lives, and there’s dignity in that, no matter what you may think.” Some people, like Lydia’s parents, are perfectly capable of carving themselves out a place in rural America. Lydia’s parents have their Restoration Hardware-outfitted house, their wine, their Netflix, and their trips to Trader Joe’s, so what do they need a big city for? And in a sense, Travis represents someone who doesn’t really need to get out to have a better life. As long as he can get out from under his father’s thumb, where he can read his fantasy novels in peace, he’s going to be pretty much fine staying in Forrestville, Tennessee.
But some people, like Dill and Lydia, need to get out. Dill needs to get out to break his family’s curse. Lydia needs to get out to see the parts of the world she needs to see and realize her ambition. But by no means should The Serpent King be read as expressing anything prescriptive toward getting out of a small town. It’s very case-specific. Some people need to get out. Or they just want to. Some people need to stay. Or they just want to. All are valid. I have a great affinity for small-town America, though, particularly in the South, so I hope people will continue to decide to stay.
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And that’s just the beginning! There’s much more to Ed Tarkington’s conversation with Jeff Zentner. Want to see the rest? Subscribe to ParnassusNext, and you’ll receive bonus material in an exclusive email. And yes — there’s still time to get the March box!
For another great review of The Serpent King by a fellow Nashville author, don’t miss Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s take on it for Humanities Tennessee and Chapter16.