In “Copperhead,” author Alexi Zentner, the son of two staunch progressive activists, sets out to ask, “What would my life have been like if I’d been raised with a different lodestar?”
Zentner, an assistant professor in Binghamton University’s English department, released “Copperhead,” his third novel, in July. The novel chronicles the aftermath of a tragic accident caused by Jessup, a teenager conflicted by a dependence on his stepfather, David John, and a growing discomfort with David John’s white supremacist leanings and history of violence. In the wake of the accident and Jessup’s attempts to cover it up, this conflict is heightened, and everything Jessup values — including relationships with his black football coach and his mixed-race girlfriend — is compromised. Pipe Dream sat down with Zentner to talk about the novel.
PD: The novel’s setting, an upstate New York college town, shares demographic similarities with cities like Ithaca or Binghamton. Aside from your familiarity with places like these, why write about them?
AZ: I think there’s a lot of tension that comes with towns where a university is central, because there’s a portion of town that is privileged beyond the people who live there year-round, and then the people who are employed by the university have a stability in their job that is not really available to everyone else, so there’s a kind of economic and class tension driven by that. And as a writer, there’s something really freeing about writing a fictionalized version of a place you know, because you know it, so it’s an easy model to build upon, but it’s still fictionalized. You’re changing things that don’t fit, so you’re not beholden to the actual geography of the place.
PD: Have you noticed anything particular about this region when it comes to racial or class dynamics?
AZ: In upstate New York, you have towns and cities, and there can be a quick dividing line between the people who live within the cities and those who live outside. The barrier between rural and urban is often very quick, and I think people forget that there are pockets of poverty that are often hidden from sight. And when people think of New York, they think of New York City — they don’t understand how big, diverse and varied New York state is. Even when you just look at Binghamton, there are several different Binghamtons: There’s the University itself, there’s Downtown, there’s Vestal, there’s some rural areas around Vestal — it’s not monolithic.
PD: A recurring trend in the novel is the educated, white liberals’ neglect for people like Jessup. Have you found that academia does a poor job of addressing the concerns of the white working class?
AZ: I think academia as a whole can be problematic because there’s a lot of privilege that goes into getting into an institution like BU. You don’t just have to be smart, you have all these other hoops to jump through, and a lot of what academia does is focus on ideas instead of people, which can be a bad thing because people fall through the gaps. But I would always argue that a good teacher teaches to students, not to the class as a whole, so I think if you’re paying attention, you should be able to teach students of every background.
PD: The relationship between gun violence and right-wing radicalism has been a hot topic lately. What did you intend to say about it here?
AZ: Gun culture in America is heavily masculinized, and guns are violent instruments. I don’t have a problem with hunting, and I come from Canada, where there is a hunting culture, but there’s no gun violence culture there comparable to America’s. I do think there are aspects of gun ownership that are not about simply owning a gun, but about sending a message, and unfortunately, there’s only one message you can send with a gun.
PD: There’s a dichotomy in the novel between overt and covert white supremacy. For example, David John won’t let his family use the N-word. Why illustrate this?
AZ: I think one of the interesting things about the book is that David John, aside from the racism, is a pretty wonderful father and wonderful guy, but that’s a very big aside. It would’ve been easier to write a book that flatly says “racism is bad,” and obviously, my personal belief is that racism is bad, but I don’t think that accomplishes anything other than just proving that I have the correct morals. So I wanted to explore this question of what you do when the people you love hold beliefs that are problematic. It’s an extreme example, but I hear this from a lot of students even: What do you do when your parents are voting for a party that holds a position you can’t stand?
PD: In telling this story, do you think you run the risk of portraying white supremacy as a two-sided issue?
AZ: I think that I tried very hard for that not to be the case, but I didn’t want to write a novel that just serves to show that I’m a good person, with the “right morals.” I wanted to raise these questions instead of giving a lecture. I don’t think you can convert people by yelling at them, which is a shame because it’s easy to yell. I think whatever complaints people had about the book, that wasn’t one of them, but that is one of the things that’s scary about writing a book like this. To write it well is incredibly risky, but that’s what art is.
PD: What’s one point you most want readers to take away?
AZ: I want people to know that if you ask honest questions, you get honest answers, and if you don’t ask those hard questions, you don’t progress. The point of being progressive is that you progress, and in order to do that, you have to ask questions that are difficult. But pretty much anything worth doing that is difficult.