In Jeff Zentner’s debut novel, The Serpent King, Dillard (Dill) Early, Lydia Blankenship, and Travis Bohannon narrate their experiences as they survive their last year in high school. Yes, I said survive, because who doesn’t remember what that last year was like? For the three of them (Travis and Dill especially) the drama of their senior year in high school is mere background music for the highs and lows they face in their lives outside of school. In many ways, The Serpent King is about surviving more than just that last year; it’s about the trio surviving their situations and expectations of everyone around then, and surviving everything their lives throw at them.
Dillard Early is the son of a snake-handling and poison-swilling preacher who, prior to the book’s beginning, was imprisoned for an “abuse of his power.” Lydia Blankenship’s parents are successful dentists, and she experiences privilege Dill and Travis only dream of. Travis Bohannon is an outsider in his small Tennessee town. He loves and re-reads his beloved fantasy novels, carries a staff, and is a devotee of a very George R.R. Martin-esque author.
The Serpent King is set in rural Tennessee, and the only one of the trio of misfit friends who seems remotely “at home” is Dill. Lydia’s forward-thinking attitude, fashion blog, and application for admission to NYU set her apart not only from Dill and Travis, but also from the rest of her classmates. Travis’s love of the fantastical and quiet demeanor set him apart from his school and work peers, and also sometimes from Dill and Lydia. He lives more through his fantasy novels than his daily life, and he says as long as he can read his books, he’ll be fine wherever he is (Hi, Travis, I think we could be good friends). Dill, though, is the only one who’s accepted that his future includes staying in Forrestville and working to help support his mother, who was injured in a car accident one night after visiting Dill’s father in prison. He wants more—mainly to escape his small-town life—but realizes his mother and father expect differently of him, and so he’s resigned himself to staying where he is.
Dill, as the central protagonist, experiences loss on a number of levels. He lost his father, first to his ministry and then to his downfall and prison. He’s lost his mother in a way, as her injury and stoic adherence to her husband’s faith, and Dill’s desire to attend college and make something more of himself drives them apart. Dill continues to experience loss in the novel—including some things he never expects. His defining moments, though, are when he gains rather than loses: he develops the courage to compete in the school’s talent show (thanks to Lydia’s encouragement), he develops the courage to share his true thoughts with his father, and he eventually develops the courage to tell his mother about his new plans for his future. His moments of loss—some of them profound—are low points from which he repeatedly rises to become a young man on his way to a different life.
Travis, one hand holding his favorite book and the other carrying his favorite wooden staff (the object of much kindhearted ridicule from Lydia), was the character I empathized with the most because of his home life and near-impossible circumstances. I wanted him to “escape” his situation, frankly, more than I wanted Dill to. His kind heart is admirable, as is his quiet devotion to his mother, Lydia, and Dill.
I never had a doubt about Lydia leaving behind the town she finds so constrictive, what with her sass and what could pass for east coast backbone. I knew she would get what she wanted no matter what it was, though at times I wanted her to be not quite so privileged—she, among the three, struggled the least. Her struggle, initially, was her desire to get out of her small town and start leading a bigger life in New York. Her growth, though, is defined by the lesson that bigger is not always better.
As a coming of age narrative, Zentner’s debut novel hits all the right notes. Hoping to see more from him in the future!
Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.
He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.
Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living.