IT SURELY takes chutzpah to attempt a retelling of a Charles Dickens blockbuster — perhaps all the more so when the book that you choose to reimagine is David Copperfield, the most autobiographical of Dickens’s work. Fortunately, with Demon Copperhead we are in the safe hands of the American writer Barbara Kingsolver. She is both a master of her craft — this is her ninth novel, and 17th book — and she has a Dickensian passion for social justice.
Our hero, properly Damon Fields, is nicknamed “Demon” for his attitude, and “Copperhead” (also the name of a snake) for his red hair. He has a rough start: as the book begins: “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.”
© Evan KafkaThe author Barbara Kingsolver, an American novelist best known for her award-winning novel The Poisonwood Bible
Baby Demon arrives on to the floor of a trailer in Lee County, Virginia, “like a little blue prizefighter”. His teenage single mother is an addict, and his chances of a stable life are not high. “Kid born to the junkie is a junkie. He’ll grow up to be everything you don’t want to know,” our narrator tells us as early as page 2. “This kid, if he wanted a shot at the finer things, should have got himself delivered to some rich or smart or Christian, nonusing type of mother. Anybody will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.”
And that is the nub of this 550-page novel. What sort of future will Demon have, born into a fractured family and a life of drug abuse and destitution in post-industrial America?
Not only are the odds stacked against the Demons of this world, but they are subject to the derision of their countrymen. “This is what I would say if I could, to all the smart people of the world with their dumb hillbilly jokes . . . we can actually hear you,” he says at one point. (Ouch.) “You get to a point of not giving a damn over people thinking you’re worthless, mainly by getting there first yourself.”
What follows is a rollicking Bildungsroman. His mother is frequently absent — “an expert in rehab” — and he is partly raised by her neighbours, the sprawling Peggot family. Then she marries — a bully called Stoner — who thinks that all Demon needs is a bit of discipline. By the time Demon is ten, his mother has died, and he is in the so-called care of the “monster-truck mud rally of child services”: overworked case-workers in an underfunded social-care system, and foster parents who are only in it for the support cheque or for free labour.
At one such placement, on a tobacco farm, he makes two friends: the guileless Tommy, who likes nothing better than sketching skeletons, and Fast Forward, a charismatic school quarterback with a nasty habit of exploiting the younger children and popping pills (he holds “pharm parties”, which Demon mishears as “farm parties”).
Life improves when Demon is fostered by Coach Winfield and his daughter Agnes, known as Angus. Demon starts to thrive at school, when his artistic ability — he has a passion for Marvel superheroes, and draws his own cast of cartoon characters based on those around him — catches the eye of an unusually supportive art teacher.
Further, thanks to Winfield, he becomes a rising star of the football field, which confers on him both purpose and popularity. Then, catastrophe strikes: a horrific on-pitch injury means that his occasional recreational drug habit becomes a full-on addiction to opioids, aided and abetted by the team doctor. All of this takes place around the time when he is falling in love, dramatically and irreversibly, with the beautiful but needy Dori.
Like Dickens, Kingsolver creates a sprawling novel, teeming with eccentrics. Characters from the original are wittily reimagined: Uriah Heap appears as the scheming assistant football coach U-Haul Pyles; Dr Strong and Annie Strong appear as the only two teachers who encourage Demon at school; and the Micawbers become a set of foster parents — not quite the worst — the McCobbs. Demon also discovers Dickens at school: “one seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from around here.”
There is a series of ever more desperate Dickensian misadventures, and there are subplots aplenty of varying complexity. Alongside moments of light, Demon faces an almost insurmountable barrage of disasters: loss after loss, tragedy after tragedy. Kingsolver’s critique of contemporary American society — an examination of poverty and drug addiction tucked away in the richest country on earth — is fired by anger, which is as exhausting as it is passionate.
At times, it is agonising to read on, so sure is the reader that calamity looms around the corner. (“I thought my life couldn’t get any worse,” Demon observes, aged ten. “Here’s some advice: Don’t ever think that.”)
A long and sometimes harrowing read the novel may be, but it is also a page-turner. It is Demon himself that keeps you going: his caustic wit, his fierce talent for survival, his humanity, and his capacity for love and forgiveness mean that the reader cannot help but root for him.
I don’t want to give too much away, but . . . the final chapter offers convincing grounds for hope. As Demon confides to the reader: “I was a born sucker for the superhero rescue.”
Sarah Meyrick is a novelist. Her latest novel is Joy and Felicity (Sacristy Press, 2021).
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber & Faber at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-571-37648-3.
DEMON COPPERHEAD — SOME QUESTIONS
- Early in the book, Demon says that “the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.” How far do you think this is true?
- Demon is a fan of superheroes. Do you think such a fantasy is a help or a hindrance to those in difficult circumstances? Is this any different from the comfort offered by religious faith?
- What is important about drawing for Demon? What does this skill afford him at different stages of his life?
- What makes Fast Forward such a charismatic figure? Why do you think the people he treats so badly stay loyal to him?
- Discussing the prescription painkiller epidemic, June states: “They did this to us.” What are the factors that created such widespread pharmaceutical abuse?
- At the end of the story, were you optimistic about Demon’s future?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 6 October, we will print extra information about our next book, Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. It is published by HarperCollins at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-00-830893-3.
Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Crossroads is a family saga set in suburban Chicago in the 1970s. The book, the first in a trilogy, focuses on the Hildebrandt family and the struggles they face trying to adapt to a fast-changing society. At the head of the family is Russ, a disillusioned pastor who feels under threat from his charismatic young associate. They disagree over the running of the youth group, “Crossroads”. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the burgeoning hippie movement, the narrative reveals the moral challenges that the younger members of the family face as they, in turn, reveal their troubles. Much of the story unfolds over the course of one day leading up to Christmas. This adds intensity to the story, reflecting Franzen’s skill in capturing the dramas of domestic life.
Jonathan Franzen is an American author of fiction and non-fiction titles. He has written five novels, including the award-winning Corrections, in 2001, which took him eight years to write, and is similar in theme to his latest book, Crossroads. The author is known for his ability to write with psychological depth on dysfunctional family life in contemporary America. Back in 2001, Corrections won the National Book Award for Fiction in the United States. In the same year, he had a publicised dispute with Oprah Winfrey over its inclusion in her book-club list. Franzen is currently working on the next instalment in his trilogy A Key to all Mythologies. Crossroads is the first book in this trilogy.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
November: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray
December: Akenfield by Ronald Blythe