COPPERHEAD by Alexi Zentner


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A slow, gritty coming-of-age story in which class, racial, and family tensions come to a head in one long weekend.

It’s a snowy November Friday in upstate New York, and Jessup is 17, smart, and a fine linebacker who may be tackling for Yale next year. In a playoff game, he makes a crushing hit and scores. But in the parking lot later, the black player he took down, Corson, confronts Jessup, who is white, and terrible events are set in motion that will leave Corson dead and Jessup mired in a coverup that spotlights his dark family history. His brother, Ricky, is serving a 20-year sentence for killing two black men four years earlier when they attacked him because of racist tattoos on his torso. Jessup’s stepfather, David John, went to prison on a lesser, related charge and is just out. The family attends the Blessed Church of the White America, where the elders “have been promising a racial holy war.” The police go after Jessup as an obvious suspect in Corson’s death, and a media-savvy church member sees a martyr who can rally more whites to the cause. Jessup is a likable but painfully ambivalent young man, closely tied to his family yet silently opposed to their racist credo and desperate to escape their trailer home, their muddle of virtues and vile racism. It’s a stretch for him to have a black girlfriend but more implausible for her to not know of his family history before they become intimate. Zentner (The Lobster Kings, 2015, etc.), a Canada-born novelist, has written two literary works under his own name and four thrillers as Ezekiel Boone. His characters here are well-drawn, though the story has some weak spots and his bedeviled linebacker is prone to repetition that can sound at times like whining.

A persuasive take on a familiar theme: the venomous prejudices lurking in small communities.

Pub Date: July 9th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-9848-7728-4
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2019


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