Inspired by incidents from Alexi Zentner's (The Lobster Kings) childhood, Copperhead is set in the fictional town of Cortaca, a stand-in for real-life Ithaca, N.Y. The novel's protagonist, 17-year-old Jessup Collins, lives there in a double-wide trailer with his thrice-married mother and younger sister. His stepfather, David John Michaels, has just returned from serving a four-year prison sentence for attempting to cover up his son Ricky's killing of two African American university students that began as an act of self-defense.
Jessup struggles to reconcile his image of David John, a hardworking husband and father--but also a member of the Blessed Church of the White America, a white supremacist church that preaches the doctrine of "Rahowa," or "racial holy war," led by his brother Earl and used as a political platform by an ambitious, media-savvy college student, Brandon Rogers.
Over the course of a long, snowy weekend in November, Jessup, an honor roll student who's counting on a football scholarship to help lift him out of the marginal existence he shares with his loving family, is transformed from the hero of a playoff game to the focal point of a firestorm over a racially charged tragedy. Jessup's predicament is complicated by the fact that his girlfriend is Deanne Diggins, the daughter of his African American football coach.
Zentner skillfully sidesteps one of the principal risks in novels of this sort, that of turning his characters into mere ideological mouthpieces. Both Jessup and David John evolve as the novel hurtles along. It's easy to identify Copperhead's villains, but they're far less interesting than its flawed heroes. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer