Yes, yes, yes. Can Barbra Kingsolver write yet another ground-breakingly brilliant novel? Can this intellectual powerhouse of a woman, at 67, write convincingly as a troubled, drug addled, abused orphaned boy? And finally: how on earth does she do this – is she a shape-shifter? As to the question: do you have to read David Copperfield first to understand Demon Copperhead? The answer is no. The book stands on its own, the nod to Dickens a realisation that the societal blindness of 170 years ago hasn’t changed. The bottom of the pile still stinks.
Hillbillies. They’re a bit of a joke, surely? It’s an historical term for unsophisticated, rural folk who live in the boondocks and marry their cousins. This story takes us there, into the hills of Lee County, Virginia, to the deprivations of trailer-life poverty and a boy, Damon, growing up hungry in a fully dysfunctional life. They try to own the word “hillbilly” but it still owns them.
The lad calls himself Demon and he has a tough disposition. He learns to negotiate his way through trials that would crush everyone I know. His glass, that is transparently about as empty as any child’s can get, he resolutely never gives up on trying to fill. His father is dead, his mother an alcoholic and an addict heading for an early grave and so Demon brings himself up, mostly dodging the stepfather’s fists, learning love from the neighbouring family, the Peggots (for the Dicken’s readers), exploited for his physical strength by foster families who work him like an adult, including harvesting tobacco, sorting trash and meth lab work, bumbled by social services and yet, still, always hoping that his road will lead him to the ocean. He wants, one day, to see the sea.
Demon meets boys in care. They are neglected and devise their own fun, and sometimes these consist of pill parties, the older boy scoring the drugs.
“A ten-year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we’re meant to say: Look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words don’t pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. An older boy that never knew safety himself, trying to make us feel safe. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands.“
This is Demon’s voice. It’s not a ten-year-old hillbilly’s voice, nor is it Kingsolver’s. It is perhaps future Damon reliving his childhood, always believing he will survive but being slammed at every turn, eventually heading off to see the sea. We, as readers, know he will make it to adulthood, but he takes us through the shit in real time. Demon is a clever and compelling mix of naive youth and worldliness born of experience before the experience is over. I meet kids like this occasionally (not quite as Dickensian): the ones you wring your hands over and can’t help wondering how different they would be if they’d been born into unconditional love and even a modicum of comfort; if their expectations began further up the hierarchy of needs.
“Once this fierce tiny towheaded girl got so fed up of a big guy calling her Q-tip, she stood on the seat behind him and cracked her Etch A Sketch over his head. Screen side down, the silver shit running down to cover his whole face. Picture Tin Man out of the Oz movie. That girl was going places. Probably she’s the president of something by now. At the least, not pregnant.” Not pregnant being considered a good achievement for a school kid. Go you, girl.
Demon goes from piss-stinking state ward straight to star with his elevation to the football team and has his moment of bliss with the cool kids cruising the streets, classic American movie style: “The sun hung low over the mountains like a big red tit, the lights blazed green and red off the glass store windows, the girls bent their beautiful faces together keeping their secrets, their bodies of sweetness, Fords and Chevies, the river flowed. This is how it’s done, I thought, and I am doing it. Dragging Main.“
The lovely lyrical writing is on every page. This is what I mean about voice, these are remarkable observations, but still how a boy sees the world, and Demon is a cartoonist who frames his life in pictures. I copied out some of my favourite descriptions:
“Lately I’d been studying on the human form, aka this girl in all my classes they called Hot Sauce that sat in a chair the way ice cream melts.“
“The day itself was cruel, a blue sky to rip your damn heart from your lungs. Trees in bud, yellow jonquils exploding out of the ground, dogwoods standing around in their petticoats.“
“The trail got tricky eventually but never treacherous, and I came to the water hole before I expected it. The falls were a tame trickle and the pool itself a deep, easy blue. Taking art classes on repeat, you learn a lot about color, but I can’t explain that blue. You see it in photos of icy lands. Peacock blue in the deep center, shading out to clear on the pebbly edges. The water was dimply and alive on top, perfectly still underneath. My eye kept going back to the turquoise middle. You so rarely see that, but children will color water that way every time, given the right choice of crayons. Like they were born knowing there’s better out there than what we’re getting.”
The guts of the story though, that should fire anger in every heart, is the cautionary tale of the opioid epidemic; yet another indictment of Big Pharma and the reckless spiral of addiction that follows the pursuit of money without conscience. Like Dickens in David Copperfield, Kingsolver flays open a social tragedy to agonising view and we pick through the maggots and rot festering in the system, but neither writer offers a solution to the crisis other than strength of character. Boys without the extraordinary perseverance of David or Demon simply don’t make it through.
I do like books with strong characters who overcome outrageous odds, not by magic or cleverness, but just sheer bloody-mindedness, though. And I like the metaphor of a boy trying to reach the sea. As if the sea will fix everything.
Sometimes it does.
I should confess to being a Barbara Kingsolver fan from way back. Read Poisonwood Bible (you probably already have…), also Unsheltered which has an interesting historical twist, and Flight Behaviour, which is beautiful.