Monday, April 03, 2023

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

The best way to introduce you to young Demon Copperhead is to let him announce his entrance:
First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.

On any other day they’d have seen her outside on the deck of her trailer home, good neighbors taking notice, pestering the tit of trouble as they will. All through the dog-breath air of late summer and fall, cast an eye up the mountain and there she’d be, little bleach-blond smoking her Pall Malls, hanging on that railing like she’s captain of her ship up there and now might be the hour it’s going down. This is an eighteen-year-old girl we’re discussing, all on her own and as pregnant as it gets. The day she failed to show, it fell to Nance Peggot to go bang on the door, barge inside, and find her passed out on the bathroom floor with her junk all over the place and me already coming out. A slick fish-colored hostage picking up grit from the vinyl, worming and shoving around because I’m still inside the sack that babies float in, pre-real-life

Mr. Peggot was outside idling his truck, headed for evening service, probably thinking about how much of his life he’d spent waiting on women. His wife would have told him the Jesusing could hold on a minute, first she needed to see if the little pregnant gal had got herself liquored up again. Mrs. Peggot being a lady that doesn’t beat around the bushes and if need be, will tell Christ Jesus to sit tight and keep his pretty hair on. She came back out yelling for him to call 911 because a poor child is in the bathroom trying to punch himself out of a bag.
Here is Barbara Kingsolver showing her genius again, managing to take on the voice of a young boy and keeping that voice with all its grammatical blunders and peculiar wording for seven hundred pages of monologue. I can imagine writing a short story in the voice of my younger self, but to be able to convincingly hold that voice not just for a short story but for a very long novel simply astounds me.

There is no way I could do justice to sketching out the whole story of Demon’s life, but I could easily assemble a series of terse bits of advice he gives to the reader. Although it says his name is Damon Fields on his birth certificate. “Did she think she’d even get me off her tits before people turned that into Demon?” And once he got his copper-wire hair, he became Demon Copperhead.

Like Dickens’ David Copperfield, Demon is passed from foster home to foster home and works dangerous, low-paying jobs from the age of eight on. His mother loses custody and regains it several times, but takes in stray men one after another. The worst of these men, Stoner, beats on both him and his mother until Demon is taken from her by Children’s Services. “At the time, I thought my life couldn’t get any worse. Here’s some advice: Don’t ever think that.”

Demon’s great talent is drawing, and he loves to draw super-heroes. He draws his friends and tells them what super powers they have.

While he is with one family, the McCobbs, Mrs. McCobb takes him to Walmart and using money he has made sorting junk for a junk-dealer, she buys him new clothes, not so much for him but to protect her family’s good name.
But at school the next day in my new clothes I still felt horrible. Not even proud. Embarrassed honestly, because nothing would change. Now they’d all think I was just that much more pitiful, because of trying. Loser is a cliff. Once you’ve gone over, you’re over.
At one point, in desperation he seeks out his grandmother, hoping to be taken in and cared for.
My grandmother had no use for anything in the line of boys or men, “Any of them that stands up to make water,” was how she put it. Bad news for me.
Still, his grandmother, his father’s mother, does provide for him and an uncle who lives with her encourages his art and provides sage advice when others only laugh at or curse him.

While Demon’s life is sad and his very existence precarious, this novel is often humorous and Kingsolver’s wisdom shines through. She exposes the many stereotypes applied to hill country miners, so-called hillbillies, and looks long and hard at opiate addiction. In her afterward, she acknowledges her debt to Charles Dickens:
I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend.

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