“You get to a point where you don’t care about people thinking you’re worthless anymore,” he says. “Mostly by getting there first yourself.”
Demon is right about America’s patronizing derision, but he’s wrong about his own worth. In a feat of literary alchemy, Kingsolver uses the fire of this boy’s spirit to illuminate – and burn – the darkest corners of our country.
The essential Americanness of “Demon Copperhead” seems particularly ironic given that Kingsolver was directly inspired by one of England’s most famous classics: “David Copperfield”, by Charles Dickens. In a brief afterword, Kingsolver expresses his gratitude to Dickens and acknowledges having lived for years “with his indignation, his inventiveness and his empathy”.
Indeed, anyone familiar with Dickens’ most autobiographical novel will hear its characters and incidents echo through these chapters. And in one particular meta-moment, Kingsolver winks at its readers when Demon praises an author he discovered in school. Charles Dickens, he says, is “a serious old man, dead and strange, but did Jesus have the image of children and orphans being screwed around and no one caring about the rat’s ass.” You would think he came from here.
There’s no denying the thrill of seeing Dickens’ Peggottys transformed into friendly Peggots, or his oily villain Uriah Heep recast as a whiny assistant football coach named U-Haul Pyles. But too much can be made of these echoes. Kingsolver didn’t just dress Dickens’ characters in modern clothes and relocate them to southern Appalachia, like a desperate Shakespeare director might reimagine “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in an Ikea. No, Kingsolver has reimagined history in the fabric of contemporary life. “Demon Copperhead” is its own gripping story entirely, a fierce examination of contemporary poverty and drug addiction nestled in the wealthiest country on earth.
From the moment Demon starts talking to us, his story is already a boulder rolling down Appalachia, faster and faster, stopping for nothing. “We’re one fucking thing after another,” he said. “Sometimes a good day lasts about ten seconds.” Even before she was born, her father, a man named Copperhead, died under mysterious circumstances. Demon knows not to rely on his mother, bubbling with optimism and other spirits, but it’s always a shock when he loses her too and falls into the cogs of the foster care system. .
“I thought my life couldn’t get any worse,” he says. “Here’s a word of advice: never think that. ” He is 10 years old.
Kingsolver effectively rekindled the moral outrage of the great Victorian novelist for dramatizing the horrors of child poverty at the end of the 20th century. Demon’s descriptions of his life under the neglectful eye of child protective services reveal one ordeal after another. Terribly overwhelmed, the state relies on investment companies, “rotating and marketing adoptive boys on more than fifty client accounts”. It’s a ghastly racket, akin to modern slavery, with sleazy foster parents signing up for free labor and monthly checks from the state. “Being tall for his age is a trap,” notes Demon. “They send you where they need an adult body that can’t defend itself.” At best, foster care is “like a cross between prison and dodgeball”.
And there is saving grace. It would be dark 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 example, Demon meets his new adoptive “dad”, Crickson, “a big, meaty guy with a red face and a greasy comb like fingers holding a basketball.” The abandoned kitchen is covered in foam. “This man’s wife had passed away,” Demon said. “I was wondering if her body was still lying somewhere in that house, because I’d say there hadn’t been any storage here since she started.”
At times like these – and they’re all over this novel – you might remember another orphaned boy sneaking around the undergrowth of the country, just trying to stay out of trouble: Huck Finn. With Demon, Kingsolver has created an outcast also reminiscent of Twain’s masterpiece, speaking in the natural poetry of the American vernacular.
Kingsolver’s attraction to the great novels of the 19th century is not surprising. Since the publication of his first novel,bean treesin 1988, she became increasingly interested in stories that explored demanding social themes. In 2000, she established the Bellwether Prize, a $25,000 prize designed to celebrate “socially engaged fiction” that addresses “issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.”
It’s a tall order, fraught with the deadly risks of polemical art, and none of the winners I’ve read of have achieved anything close to Kingsolver’s combination of subtlety and power. Now, with “Demon Copperhead,” she’s raised the bar even higher, delivering her best demonstration yet of a novel’s ability to simultaneously entertain, move, and advocate for reform.
Much of this success stems from the ingenuity with which 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 crime preyed on the pain of poor Americans to create an outrageously profitable and deadly industry.
“I don’t know a single person my age who doesn’t take pills,” Demon said at one point. “If you don’t know the dragon we hunted, words may not help you.” But these words, spoken in the candid, pained voice of a barely surviving young man, create a visceral image of this dragon.
“Where does the road to ruin begin? asks the demon. “That’s the point of it all,” I was told. To master a choice you have made. But part of his struggle is realizing just how much this road has been forged by forces completely beyond his control. At one point, a kind woman tells Demon that he shouldn’t think he should be responsible for everything. Her job, she insists, is “just to be a little boy”.
“Weird,” Demon thinks. “I hadn’t had this job before.”
In such tender moments, this story is almost too much to bear.
The demon survives. On some level, we always know this; he is the narrator, after all. But the harrowing story Kingsolver tells — including a particularly chilling climax — makes his life seem continually in jeopardy. His resilience, in the face of so many personal tragedies and governmental failures, makes him a name to remember.
“I was starting to be known as Demon Copperhead,” he says in a rare moment of pride. “You can’t deny, he has power.”
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
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