Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Redeeming the Past in Alexi Zentner's Copperhead and Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred

Author Alexi Zenter. (Photo: Laurie Willick, Viking)

Alexi Zentner's Copperhead, spins several threads that eventually knit together. Although the President's name is mentioned only twice, in reference to the Woman's March that occurred shortly after his inauguration, the novel is firmly ensconced in the Trump era where racial and class tensions have been exacerbated. The novel's incendiary language exploits these divisions mirroring the raw rhetoric the President deploys in his rallies and almost daily tweets. There is an incisive exploration of toxic race relations and the stigma associated with being labeled as so-called "white trash." It is also an investigation about the relationship between the alt-right and the religious right in America. Throughout, a teenager navigates through these treacherous landmines, makes a serious mistake and as an adult attempts to address it.

In a gripping third-person narrative relayed in bite-size chapters that unfolds over a few days, Zentner introduces us to Jessup, a high-school senior living in a small community in upstate New York "where history is everything." Despite being raised by a single mom on a limited income and living in a trailer-park home, Jessup maintains good grades and works at the local movie theatre when he is not hunting to supply food for his family. Perhaps most importantly, he excels at athletics. Even though some of his classmates dismiss him as "born into the wrong family," even a Nazi, he is a standout football player and has the possibility of acquiring an Ivy League football scholarship.

The novel opens on an important playoff game with a college scout sitting in the stands. More anxiety-provoking for Jessup is that his white-supremacist stepfather, David John, is also in attendance. He has just been released from prison where he was serving time along with Jessup’s older brother for the manslaughter deaths of two Black college students who had objected to their racist tattoos that included "pure blood" and "Rahowa," an acronym for "racial holy war."

When David John returns, he expects Jessup to attend services at the Blessed Church of White America, which he considers a community, a place "to lift you up." It is also a private compound in which a militia is preparing for the coming race war. Jessup has not attended since his brother and stepfather went to prison, in part because he is dating the coach's daughter who is biracial and also because he feels quietly uneasy about the racist message preached by his uncle Earl. To voice his displeasure would likely offend his family and his best friend and he does not want any friction with them because they have been a source of stability. Yet he has imbibed their racist attitudes so it is unsurprising that Jessup indulges in offensive language such as uttering "boy" when addressing an African-American football player named Corson from the opposing team.

Zentner offers on balance a generous portrayal of Jessup given his youth, support for his immediate family and his capacity for hard work and discipline. At the same time, the author is fair minded about David John because, despite the racist edge in much of what he says, he is presented as a genuinely good father deeply concerned about the welfare of his family, encouraging Jessup to take responsibility for his actions and seemingly determined to seek redemption for his own personal demons. The reader warms to him particularly late in the novel when he distances himself from the white supremacist ideology embodied by his brother and is willing to accept diversity in ways that would have been foreign to him earlier.

The narrative kicks into high gear when Jessup has a post-game altercation with Corson whom he had earlier mocked. It escalates into something worse, and this tragedy sets in motion a sequence of events that spirals out of his control. When he talks to police officers, even a sympathetic one who refers to protestors as "Black Lives terrorists," Jessup continually denies that he has done anything wrong. But what is happening within himself suggests otherwise. His frequent nightmares and his growing awareness that he should have an honest conversation with himself but is afraid to are planting the seeds for his later need to atone. Conflicted, Jessup has a hard time listening to his African-American coach – the voice of wisdom and compassion in the novel – who reminds him that Jessup "can't hide from (his) history (and his) heritage."

A scene for the the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla)

When the pastor, his uncle Earl, who is appallingly racist in his private conversations, contacts a media-savvy, well-groomed local university student named Brandon Rogers – the inspiration for the novel's title – a shift in the tone of Copperhead occurs. It veers at times from a complex three-dimensional character-driven narrative into an action-driven melodrama that focuses on Brandon and his craving for inflammatory publicity. Even for those who may share his politics, I think Brandon would be hard to like. An opportunist, he has the facility for exploiting a tragedy by enlisting the media whom he actually despises: "I call and they come running... They know I am ratings gold." He spins a narrative before the cameras that gins up support for Jessup by dishonestly casting Corson as "a trouble maker, a common thug menacing a boy who did nothing wrong" and labelling the investigation of Jessup as "nothing more than a witch hunt" and the local police and legal authorities as "cowering behind political correctness." An embarrassed and angry Jessup is likely right when he comes to wonder whether Brandon's only motive is to enhance his own personal profile. Jessup's African-American coach accurately and succinctly captures the essence of the insidious spokesman for the alt- right when he informs Jessup:
Brandon looks at black people and doesn't even think of them as people... I have seen him on the news, and he does not use the N-word. Doesn't blames Jews or Mexicans. He does it nice and subtle. A dog whistle. Says 'urban violence' or 'thug culture' but we all know what it means.
Even though it may be problematic to compare a fictional character with a real-life individual, Brandon evokes the university-educated white supremacist, Richard Spencer, who purportedly coined the term alt-right and whose goal is to offer an intellectual veneer to a racist movement. He attended the 2016 Republican Convention and a week after Trump's inauguration delivered in Washington a rabble-rousing keynote address to supporters who offered the Nazi salute at its conclusion. He was also an organizer for the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that ended with the murder of Heather Heyer, a tragedy that is fictionalized in Copperhead.

Some reviewers have been skeptical of the novel's final thrust. If they are referring to an episode that has the whiff of a conspiratorial thriller, I can accept the criticism. Writing in a realist mode and then to suddenly switch into something that could have come out of the thrill-a-minute television series Homeland is implausible. But the epilogue set over twelve years later in which Jessup is attempting to atone for his crime by speaking out, I do find credible and not a "liberal fantasy."

Derek Black and his father, Don Black in 2011. (Photo: Jason Henry)

Jessup's story reminded me of Derek Black, the real-life white supremacist, who was willing publicly acknowledge his participation in the promulgation of a poisonous ideology, one that is carefully documented in Rising Out Of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from The Washington Post. Derek's godfather is the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and his father, Don, founded the infamous Stormfront, a White Supremacist, anti-Semitic, Holocaust denial internet forum, which radicalized several young men, the most notorious being Dylann Roof who murdered nine African Americans in 2015 at a Charleston Church.

Derek joined his father in a talk radio show but slowly began to wean himself from this noxious ideology – much of it voiced in Copperhead – in large part when he attended a liberal arts college. His notorious reputation was well known there and he was ostracized by many of the students, but several individuals, including Jews, reached out to him. He also fell in love with a woman who became his moral compass. He gradually repudiated the ideology, changed his name and attempted to live a quiet life without publicity but reversed his position after the election of Trump. He wrote a compelling piece in The New York Times and agreed to cooperate with Saslow in order to tell his story in large part because he believed that he had contributed to the racist divide that was roiling America. He paid the price by forfeiting the support of most of his family with the notable exception of his father, Don, who participated in the book project even though he remains a committed white nationalist.

Granted the specifics of the two individuals differ – one was seeking redemption for a serious mistake that turned into a crime while the other was attempting to atone for a virulent ideology that he helped to disseminate – but the basic lineaments remain similar. Both men had been cocooned in a family and community bubble, and as teenagers never challenged that worldview. Circumstances changed in Derek's case with the unexpected seismic shift in the national political landscape. Personal rather than wider political issues prompted Jessup's family to move out of state. Both retained close ties with at least one family member and Jessup only lost the friendship of his closest friend and retained the scorn of his older brother in prison who remained an unrepentant racist. Finally it took greater maturity, support from others, and geographical distance for them to either repudiate or apologize for past actions. Jessup acknowledged his role in the death of a young man, navigated his way through the justice system and spent much time talking about the incident and its aftermath, as well as the white-supremacist church, which he now disavows, and still harbours guilt that he obtained a second chance while Corson did not.

Both books deserve a large readership and public and private discussion. If anything they demonstrate that a community is not generic or homogeneous, and that it cannot be stereotyped.

Photo: Keith Penner
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is www.thatlineofdarkness.com.

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