... a smart, propulsive story about racism, class and the limits of individual possibility. It mostly avoids those compromises that socially-conscious novels sometimes feel obliged to make: namely, trading off complexity of character and literary style in favor of 'message.' Instead, Zentner vividly realizes Jessup's daily world here ... [the book] has some of the feel of a YA novel: We see things through Jessup's fraught teenage perspective and the focus of the story is on his clumsy struggle to separate from and, yet, still love his virulently racist family. I can imagine the novel sparking heated discussions in high school English classes, as well as in book groups for the more mature ... a pretty unsparing story about how one's fate is determined so much by the random luck of one's family, but it's also merciful enough to leave the exit door of reinvention cracked open.
...the chapters pop in expert jabs ... The prose is visceral, as taut as his teenage linebacker protagonist. Zentner’s concision is powerful, even when he depicts Jessup’s struggle simply to avoid trouble ... as complications mount, Zentner remains true to his generous depiction of Jessup and his world, the forces that presumably engender racism ... But Copperhead feels exculpatory. Not that the story lacks for punishment—people suffer, people die—but the significant crimes in the narrative are quite literally accidents. Zentner’s impulse to turn an attack on his own family into a sustained inquiry into racial animus is admirable, but the deck is stacked with empathy. The book’s depictions of bigotry are simply outshined by Jessup’s heart of gold ... Still, as a moral inquiry, Copperhead invites us to see how bigotry operates in real life.
...excruciatingly honest and exceptionally brave. It requires honesty and courage of an author, as well as writing chops, to give readers a sympathetic and credible character who is a white separatist and to put that character squarely in the context of a comprehensible life—judged, unforgiven, forgiven, unlovable yet loved in the eyes of his conflicted stepson, himself a sympathetic and credible character in a beautifully rendered coming of age story ... The work is also stylistically brilliant, fast-paced, and well-told in punchy, deceptively short sentences with verbs that pop them to life nestled in chapters of two and three pages each. A master of voice in the diction of a bright adolescent football player, Zentner not only captures but nails his first-person narrator, Jessup, and creates reader empathy quickly. There are paragraphs, too, of simply gorgeous writing ... One might well wish that Zentner had dared to end the story without the epilogue. He was, perhaps, too much in need of assuring his readers of a certain ultimate outcome. In fact, he’d done enough. He’d done more than enough. Bravo!
...ambitious but deeply flawed ... Zentner packs a lot of plot into Copperhead; the story unfolds over the course of just a few days, and has more than its share of twists. This works both for and against the book—it’s undoubtedly a page-turner, and the pacing, for better or worse, is almost cinematic. But the novel’s climax, while certainly unexpected, just isn’t believable; what begins as a realist novel quickly descends into a melodrama that requires heroic levels of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader ... Unfortunately, the characters and dialogue in the novel, for the most part, all ring equally false ... This is how movie characters talk, not actual people ... Perhaps the main problem with Copperhead is that the supposedly complicated questions it asks are not, in fact, difficult to answer ... It’s clear that Zentner’s heart is in the right place, and that he has real talent. But Copperhead never rises above the level of a clumsy morality play; it’s a novel that’s too facile for the issues Zentner seeks to address. Good intentions don’t always make for good literature, and this book, unfortunately, is proof.
Copperhead, Alexi Zentner’s third novel, is an ambitious attempt to grapple with some serious questions about racism’s infectious nature. But while the novel works well in its quiet moments, the story often relies on cheap narrative twists ... Copperhead is at its best when it slows down to let Jessup stew in his problems, and he has a lot of problems, including a horrific accident that eventually drives the narrative ... While Jessup’s moments of self-examination in the novel are particularly strong, the characters in the young man’s orbit could have used some more fleshing out. Wyatt, Jessup’s best friend and a still-zealous white supremacist, is particularly shallow ... heir friendship never feels genuine. This flimsy characterization really sticks out at the end, where the novel rushes to a denouement that feels too right and wraps things up a little too neatly ... Mr. Zentner writes in a clipped, journalistic style that keeps the story moving along, only occasionally letting more florid prose creep in as Jessup wrestles with the choices he made. The author also has an impressive knack for succinctly capturing the character of Cortaca, the novel’s thinly veiled take on Ithaca, N.Y. ... Unfortunately, Copperhead tosses out most of its nuanced aspects and tries to be a thriller for the last third ... the sudden cuts between each chapter feel like interruptions rather than natural places to pause ... As admirable as the book is in spots, Copperhead never quite comes together once the narrative focus shifts into its overly dramatic conclusion.
... a vivid portrait of what happens to a thoughtful teenager who's forced to face hard questions of right and wrong, and to decide when familial love and loyalty may demand too much ... Zentner skillfully sidesteps one of the principal risks in novels of this sort, that of turning his characters into mere ideological mouthpieces ... the novel hurtles along, its pace quickened by Zentner's innovative technique of carving up lengthy scenes into chapters of only two or three pages. It's easy to identify Copperhead's villains, but they're far less interesting than its flawed heroes.
Zentner...wades into thorny racial and class thickets in this steely and often gripping novel ... The short chapters, most no longer than three pages, lend the narrative a propulsive, if occasionally choppy, feel. There’s a tendency to hammer home themes such as the indelible markings of family and class, and in the book’s last third, the taut drama morphs briefly into a conspiratorial thriller that strains credulity. Nonetheless, Zentner’s portrait of a young man’s conflicting desires for disavowal and belonging is rich and nuanced.
Jessup is a likable but painfully ambivalent young man ... It’s a stretch for him to have a black girlfriend but more implausible for her to not know of his family history before they become intimate ... characters here are well-drawn, though the story has some weak spots and his bedeviled linebacker is prone to repetition that can sound at times like whining. A persuasive take on a familiar theme: the venomous prejudices lurking in small communities.