Jessup, the 17-year-old protagonist of Alexi Zentner’s novel “Copperhead,” could have walked straight out of a 1980s John Mellencamp song. He’s a gifted student and a standout linebacker for his high school football team; Ivy League recruiters have shown interest in bringing him to their universities. He loves his mom, his kid sister and the music of Johnny Cash. He’s got a job at his small town’s movie theater, an adoring girlfriend and a pickup truck. Ain’t that America?
He also has some serious baggage. His brother and stepfather were convicted in the beating death of two young African American men, and while they both claimed self-defense, their white-power tattoos and membership in the “Blessed Church of the White America” told a different story. Jessup’s attempts to grapple with his family’s racism, complicated by a tragic car accident, form the plot of “Copperhead,” an ambitious but deeply flawed novel from Ithaca, N.Y., author Zentner.
“Copperhead” opens with Jessup competing in a playoff football game. His stepfather, David John, is in attendance, having recently been released from prison. Jessup scores a brutal hit on a running back named Kevin Corson, who Jessup observes is “hide-in-the-night kind of black — but not one of the poor blacks.” (Jessup, it becomes clear in the novel, is stubbornly unmindful of his own racism.)
Kevin, angered by what he considered a too-early tackle, confronts Jessup after the game, first in the stadium parking lot and later at a party. He brings up Jessup’s family and their history of racism; Jessup, determined to avoid a fight, leaves the party. Drunk and distracted, he inadvertently hits Kevin with his car, killing the young man instantly. He makes a clumsy attempt to cover up the accident, staging it to make it seem like Kevin crashed his own car, but it doesn’t come close to fooling the police.
Jessup tells his stepfather what happened, and David John immediately enlists the help of his racist church to protect his stepson. The incident quickly turns into a media circus, with the church calling on a young alt-right celebrity to serve as a spokesman. Jessup, meanwhile, stays mired in self-pity: “I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong,” he thinks, displaying a degree of obliviousness that’s shocking even by teenage-boy standards.
Zentner packs a lot of plot into “Copperhead”; the story unfolds over the course of just a few days, and has more than its share of twists. This works both for and against the book — it’s undoubtedly a page-turner, and the pacing, for better or worse, is almost cinematic. But the novel’s climax, while certainly unexpected, just isn’t believable; what begins as a realist novel quickly descends into a melodrama that requires heroic levels of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.
Unfortunately, the characters and dialogue in the novel, for the most part, all ring equally false. The most painful example of this are the awkward conversations between Jessup and Deanne, his biracial girlfriend. The young woman expresses misgivings about Jessup’s family’s ties to white supremacism, and is alarmingly willing to buy her boyfriend’s glib explanation: “I can tell you everything about my entire life, but unless you were there, unless you were raised like me, it won’t make sense.” Later, after another similarly stilted hand wave from her boyfriend, she says, “You know, Jessup, for a seventeen-year-old boy, you’re not so dumb.” This is how movie characters talk, not actual people.
Perhaps the main problem with “Copperhead” is that the supposedly complicated questions it asks are not, in fact, difficult to answer. Jessup, for example, “doesn’t understand how his stepfather’s devotion to his family, his gentle politeness, reconcile with his tattoos, with his belief in the Blessed Church of the White America, a place where certain words are used with casual violence.” It’s not easy to understand why some people turn to racial hatred, of course, but “why are white racists nice to other white people?” isn’t a question that’s likely to stump even the most naive teenager.
That’s not to say there aren’t some moments of subtle perception in “Copperhead”; in one scene, Zentner turns his eye to the tendency of white racists to mask their animus under a cloak of irony, describing how Jessup’s best friend, Wyatt, makes “jokes” involving the white supremacist shibboleth “rahowa,” a clipped version of the phrase “racial holy war.” Jessup, Zentner writes, is a little uncomfortable with Wyatt’s use of the term, but “doesn’t tell Wyatt to stop, however, because he doesn’t want to have that conversation. And also, Jessup knows, because he doesn’t want to have to reckon with it himself. It’s easier to laugh at the joke.”
But moments like this are too few and far between. And the book ends with an ill-advised epilogue, set 14 years after the events of the novel, that’s essentially a white liberal redemption fantasy — it’s a forced happy ending that undercuts the realism Zentner was going for, imperfectly, in the rest of the novel.
It’s clear that Zentner’s heart is in the right place, and that he has real talent. But “Copperhead” never rises above the level of a clumsy morality play; it’s a novel that’s too facile for the issues Zentner seeks to address. Good intentions don’t always make for good literature, and this book, unfortunately, is proof.
Viking: 368 pp., $26
Schaub is a writer in Texas.