Demon Copperhead 
by Barbara Kingsolver.
Faber, 548 pp., £9.99, May, 978 0 571 37648 3
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About two-thirds​ of the way through Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, the eponymous narrator, now at high school in a poor town in Virginia, finds himself branded as ‘gifted’ by a perceptive teacher. This means that he has ‘to do the harder English, which was a time suck, reading books’. By this stage of the novel, you know that he secretly respects good teachers and real learning, and that his scorn for academic endeavour is just bravado. Soon enough he is confessing to having finished some of these challenging books ‘without meaning to’. Not just The Catcher in the Rye (not so surprising, given its brevity and its rebellious teenage narrator) but another novel that will have been much more of a time suck. He doesn’t tell us the title, but he does name the author: ‘Charles Dickens … 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.’

You might suppose that the narrator could be referring to any one of several Dickens novels; in fact, we know that he must be talking about David Copperfield – the very classic that Holden Caulfield mocks in the opening sentence of Salinger’s book. Is it likely that a hard-pressed secondary school teacher in an Appalachian town in the late 20th century would assign his pupils a whole Dickens novel? Kingsolver is prepared to risk our scepticism. Her book is closely based, episode by episode, character by character, on David Copperfield. It’s a novelistic version of what, in 17th and 18th-century poetry, was called an ‘imitation’: an updating of a classic, where the modern version asked to be checked off, point by point, against the original. The young Demon half-recognises the affinity himself.

Kingsolver has transposed Dickens’s story to Lee County, Virginia in the 1990s. It’s a real place: the westernmost part of the state, with an economy dependent on the declining industries of coal and tobacco. The area is poor and predominantly white, and the novel implicitly offers a prehistory of why those with little to lose might have gone on to vote for Trump. Kingsolver’s narrator calls his people ‘the kicked dogs of America’. Fatalism governs his tone: ‘Lee County being a place where you keep on living the life you were assigned.’ At the beginning of David Copperfield, the narrator tells us that when he was born ‘some sage women of the neighbourhood’ predicted he was ‘destined to be unlucky in life’. The narrator of Demon Copperhead has also been told of the ill omens that accompanied his birth. ‘If a mother is lying in her own piss and pill bottles while they’re slapping the kid she’s shunted out, telling him to look alive: likely the bastard is doomed.’

This is a characteristic example of Demon’s vernacular. His sentiments are grim, but he proceeds with gusto. ‘Anybody will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.’ Kingsolver herself lives in Washington County, close to where the novel is set. Her sense of place is evident in the rhythms of the narrator’s idiolect. She gives Demon a demotic, phrase-making voice that has been influenced by the carefully contrived informality of Dickens’s narrator. Like David Copperfield (‘To begin my life with the beginning of my life’), he is learning how to tell a story as he goes. ‘My thinking here is to put everything in the order of how it happened, give or take certain intervals of a young man skunked out of his skull box.’

Kingsolver’s protagonist is really called Damon Fields. His copper hair earns him his new surname (which is also the name of a poisonous snake), while it seems natural that the ‘candy-assed boy-band singer name’ given to him by his teenage mother should be turned to Demon: ‘Some name finds you, and you come running to it like a dog.’ Dickens, of course, thought much about names. His working notes for David Copperfield include columns of possibilities for his protagonist: Trotfield, Trotbury, Spankle, Wellbury, Copperboy, Copperfield, Copperfield. The final name is written twice: he knows he has clinched it. Kingsolver plays small variations on most of the names Dickens coined in his novel. Early in the narrative, Demon’s callow, booze-addled mother succumbs to the charms of Murrell Stone, an Appalachian Mr Murdstone, who rides a Harley-Davidson and wears a denim vest with no shirt. Soon they are married and living in a trailer in the woods. We know where this is headed.

Knowing where things are headed is often the point of the novel. Mistreated by his stepfather, Demon takes refuge with the neighbouring Peggot family. He befriends Emmy Peggot, a sweet orphan girl who lives with her aunt and tells him that she is really ‘a horrible person’. (Remember Little Em’ly crying out, to David’s puzzlement, ‘I am not as good a girl as I ought to be. Not near! not near!’) When his mother is hospitalised after an overdose, Demon is sent to a home for boys run by the fearsome Crickson, familiarly called ‘Creaky’ – the descendant of Mr Creakle, headmaster of Salem House in David Copperfield. There he meets a fellow inmate of whom even Creaky is in awe, the Steerforth character, whose real name is Sterling Ford, but is dubbed Fast Forward. The narrator is responsible for introducing the heartless Fast Forward to Emmy, and Dickens’s seduction plot is duly emulated. (‘Age old story,’ Demon says.) All of this is observed by Rose Dartell, a reworking of Rosa Dartle, a surly girl with a scar across her mouth. ‘It dragged through both lips, leaving them out of whack in a kind of snarl.’

Demon’s own fortunes take an upturn when he tracks down his long-lost grandmother, Betsy Woodall. Like Dickens’s Betsey Trotwood, she has ‘no use for anything in the line of boys or men’, but she still becomes Demon’s benefactor. She has a disabled brother called Mr Dick, who flies a home-made kite and is the source of much surprising wisdom. Betsy sends her grandson to lodge with Mr Winfield – not a Canterbury solicitor, but a small-town football coach and widower with a tomboy daughter called Angus. He shares Mr Wickfield’s susceptibility to alcohol, however, allowing him to be preyed on by Kingsolver’s answer to Uriah Heep, U-Haul, so named because he is employed to carry around the football team’s equipment. ‘The man could leave a layer of scum on any good thing.’ He lusts after Angus, Kingsolver’s version of Dickens’s Agnes, the good girl who is to be David’s final reward.

Steerforth and Uriah Heep are Dickens’s twinned villains, the former as alluring as the latter is repellent. Kingsolver’s villain is OxyContin, the prescription painkiller that has a stranglehold on Lee County. Coach Winfield introduces Demon to the excitement of American football, for which he has a talent. He becomes a local star, but his athletic career is stopped short by a horrendous injury, and he soon falls prey to opioids. Necessary medication becomes his ‘ticket to oxy-nowhere’. Kingsolver has said that she chose Lee County as her setting because she found out that Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, had studied US medical records and discovered that the area, with poor health provision and plenty of injured miners, was the best place to market its new drug.

At one point Demon develops a sideline in buying and selling these pills, encouraged by his girlfriend, Dori, who, like David’s ‘child-wife’, Dora, dotes on a small clamorous dog called Jip. The comedy of David and Dora setting up home in David Copperfield is replicated here – ‘Our housekeeping, oh my Lord. We were kids playing house’ – though the domestic squalor outdoes anything Dickens could imagine: ‘We were storybook orphans on drugs.’ ‘Carry through incapacity of Dora, but affectionate,’ Dickens wrote in his plan for the fifteenth monthly instalment of David Copperfield. So Kingsolver has to make Demon sustain his love for chaotic, life-sapping Dori, whose closest bond to the hero becomes their shared interest in drug-taking. She will die, liberating him to pair off, at the very end, with Angus – as we knew he would. Dickens’s Agnes is a wifely guardian angel, her face ‘shining on me like a Heavenly light’. Kingsolver’s Angus is a social worker.

By inserting her characters into a narrative whose pattern and staging posts are already familiar, Kingsolver suggests the difficulty of escaping social and economic circumstances. Demon’s mother must fail him and die young. The seductive Fast Forward must run out of luck and drown. The thwarted Rose Dartell must be condemned to a life of bitterness. Kingsolver’s reason for following the plot of David Copperfield so closely is simple. In the acknowledgments, she thanks Dickens for ‘his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us.’ Demon Copperhead sets out to revive a kind of creative indignation.

‘Impassioned critique’ was certainly one of Dickens’s modes, but it takes determination to read David Copperfield in such a straightforward way. The novel is irresistible in its evocation of the pains of childhood – or rather, the ways in which childhood sufferings and losses come alive again in the memory of the adult. But it’s not very much about poverty; it’s more like the vindicating tale of a self-made man. Fleeing the Murdstones, the young David is briefly a penniless child, wandering the roads of Kent, but he is soon rescued by his benevolent aunt. David’s progress up the rungs of the economic ladder corresponds to Dickens’s own: like Dickens, young David becomes a clerk in Doctors’ Commons before learning shorthand and working as a parliamentary reporter for a daily newspaper. Finally, he sets out on a career as a writer of fiction. Nothing is going to stop him. Demon, by contrast, works in a series of poorly paid, unskilled jobs, while nursing dreams of becoming a cartoonist.

The most impoverished characters in Dickens’s novel are also the funniest: Mr and Mrs Micawber. In their place we have Mr and Mrs McCobb, who become Demon’s foster parents. They are always hopelessly broke and always looking to one of Mr McCobb’s unlikely money-making schemes. So far, so familiar. Yet you would hardly guess that Mr McCobb’s progenitor is one of the great comic performers in English fiction. McCobb’s glum sentiments are only dimly familiar:

He always ended up saying the same thing: If you spend one penny less than you earn every month, you’ll be happy. But spend a penny more than you earn, you’re done for. He’d look at me with those dark, sad eyes and lay this on me.

Here is Dickens:

‘My other piece of advice, Copperfield,’ said Mr Micawber, ‘you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!’
To make his example the more impressive, Mr Micawber drank a glass of punch with an air of great enjoyment and satisfaction, and whistled the College Hornpipe.

It’s not just the contradiction between Mr Micawber’s precept and his practice that’s irresistible – it’s the wordiness, the theatricality, that accompanies his declared despondency.

Kingsolver does justice to the emotional and material deprivations of childhood in Dickens’s novel, but not to the comedy that sharpens the pain in the original. Here is David, on his birthday, summoned to Mr Creakle’s parlour, about to be told that his mother is dead:

I found Mr Creakle, sitting at his breakfast with the cane and a newspaper before him, and Mrs Creakle with an opened letter in her hand. But no hamper.
‘David Copperfield,’ said Mrs Creakle, leading me to a sofa, and sitting down beside me. ‘I want to speak to you very particularly. I have something to tell you, my child.’
Mr Creakle, at whom of course I looked, shook his head without looking at me, and stopped up a sigh with a very large piece of buttered toast.

That piece of toast, delicious as well as evasive, is essential Dickens. Even the actual news of David’s mother’s death is turned by Mrs Creakle into a semi-comic routine:

‘When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,’ said Mrs Creakle, after a pause, ‘were they all well?’ After another pause, ‘Was your mama well?’
I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.
‘Because,’ said she, ‘I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.’
A mist rose between Mrs Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.
‘She is very dangerously ill,’ she added.
I knew all now.
‘She is dead.’
There was no need to tell me so. I had already broken out into a desolate cry, and felt an orphan in the wide world.

Demon Copperhead replicates some of the details of the episode. Again it is the boy’s birthday and he is summoned to the school office. Perhaps his mother has remembered to send a present? But instead of the toast-gobbling headmaster and his pseudo-sensitive wife, we have Demon’s caseworker, Miss Barks, who weeps a good deal, ‘nose blowing, black make-up running off her eyes’, as she tells him: ‘Mom is dead.’ It’s not quite clear what has killed David Copperfield’s mother. By Peggotty’s account, after giving birth to her son by Mr Murdstone she simply faded away: ‘She was more delicate, and sunk a little every day.’ Under the regime of the Murdstones, she dwindled into death; her baby died the day after her. The cause of death of Demon’s mother is more straightforward: ‘Miss Barks said oxy.’

The epigraph to Demon Copperhead, taken from Dickens’s novel, announces that it has designs on us: ‘It is vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.’ In the original, this is Betsey Trotwood’s way of explaining that she will make up for having neglected David’s parents by helping him. Here, the sentiment licenses Kingsolver to do some teaching. Literally. At school, Demon gets a liberal teacher called Mr Armstrong, the descendant of the decent yet unworldly Mr Strong in David Copperfield. We get a slab of his lessons on the history of coalmining in Virginia, the depredations of mine owners, the exploitation of working people. With Mr Armstrong’s teaching, enlightenment comes to the narrator: ‘Down in the dark mess of our little skull closets some puzzle pieces were clicking together and our world made some terrible kind of sense.’

The lessons are easier to take when we know from Dickens that whatever the body count a happy ending awaits us. Understandably, Kingsolver can’t bring herself to find some modern equivalent of Dickens’s Australia, where many of the good-hearted can be sent to make new and happy lives. But our hero does triumph over adversity. He is last seen driving off with his good woman, to the ocean that he has never seen, assured, like David Copperfield, that, having been born in a caul, he cannot drown.

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