I asked Julia if she had to read any Charles Dickens in high school. Her groan was quite audible: Great Expectations, the coming-of-age story of the orphan Pip, which she called a long and boring slog. Her response jogged my own memory of slogging through Great Expectations and then A Tale of Two Cities for a class and then never reading Dickens again.
At one time the most famous and popular person in all of England, Dickens was one of those mid-nineteenth-century novelists whose style can best be classified as “everything but the kitchen sink.”
Granted, in nineteenth-century novels, you had to include a lot of detail in the writing so that readers could “see” what you were saying. There were no screens, people didn’t travel as much—the novelist had to fuel the reader’s imagination and immerse them deeply in their fictional worlds.
Such a style isn’t as prevalent today, with many writers (including myself) embracing a sparer, scene-based, faster-paced style of storytelling, although some contemporary writers—John Irving, Jonathan Franzen come to mind—have been known to write these 500-plus page epics and even throw in the kitchen sink.
Let’s add novelist Barbara Kingsolver to this group. Her novel, Demon Copperhead, shared the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s considered a close retelling of David Copperfield, Dickens’ novel about another orphaned boy who is churned through the bleak ringer of foster care and neglected by a weak social support system—two issues close to Mr. Dickens’s heart.
In the case of Kingsolver’s bildungsroman (aka coming-of-age novel), Victorian England is swapped out for oxy-era rural Appalachia. Our narrator and protagonist, Demon (nee Damon Fields) is born in a trailer to a seventeen-year-old addicted mom—and then it gets worse. Violent stepfather, mom dies from overdose, Demon endures abusive foster care situations. Demon gets a small reprieve when it’s discovered he’s a good athlete and becomes a star on the high school football team—life’s pinnacle—until he wipes his knee out and becomes addicted to the painkillers he’s prescribed.
Across 550 pages, it’s one punch in the face after another for Demon. But Kingsolver is a fine writer and she creates a convincing narrative voice for Demon—half pathos, half humor—as he navigates his shitty life while striving to hew to his personal moral code. We’re with you, Demon. We’re cheering you on. We’re turning the pages to see what happens next.
More often than not, what happens next is more of the same: awful stuff on rinse and repeat. We know Demon makes it through because he’s the one telling his story, so there’s no big question there. And there’s no central plot driving the action and leading to a climactic moment. Instead, the narrative is episodic, one thing after another, and the same question is raised again and again: What terrible thing is next for Demon?
This is definitely a political novel, railing against social injustice, institutional poverty, the lack of a sturdy safety net, and especially condemning Purdue Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis. There is also a powerful message that “Hillbilly Lives Matter” and that uneducated, rural folks can be smart people despite a horrid upbringing—at one point Demon is producing a comic strip called Red Neck. We’re also often reminded how the privileged urban/suburban caste oppresses and scorns our rural neighbors.
I did enjoy the ride and greatly appreciated Kingsolver’s mastery of style and voice. I was mostly immersed in Demon’s world for the two weeks it took me to read the book, but the nature of this type of novel had me at times looking forward to reaching the end, not to find out what happens (because I knew), but because the path is so long and the landscape unchanging and there are other books on my shelf waiting for me. That’s not a great feeling to have while reading a book. Still, I’m glad I read this novel and found it satisfying. It’s a prize winner and a best seller for a reason.