“My life is small and simple, but it’s a better one than I ever thought I’d have,” says Cash, the protagonist of Jeff Zentner’s fourth novel, In the Wild Light. After his best friend, Delaney, discovers a new bacteria in a local cave, she becomes a scientific sensation and nabs a scholarship to a fancy New England boarding school. There’s a catch though: She won’t go without Cash.
Delaney is desperate to leave their small, opioid-ravaged town of Sawyer, Tennessee. But Cash’s guilt at leaving his ailing Papaw behind and his insecurity about cutting it at a private school initially cloud any visions he might have of a grander life.
Zentner’s signature poetic prose is in full effect as he crafts sentences that read like sweet tea tastes and cotton feels. The gorgeous writing reflects the inherent romance of Cash’s new life on campus, where he forges new relationships with a girl who teaches him about love, a boy who shows him the value of prayer and a teacher who helps him discover the gift of poetry, which he comes to rely on as a salve for life’s problems. Frankly, Zentner’s writing is romantic because his story demands it. Poetry, the divine, science and, yes, even quiet porches in podunk Appalachian towns—this is the stuff of passion and worship.
Every rose, however, has its thorns, and In the Wild Light’s are particularly sharp. Its romance is balanced by tragedy and grief, which keep the story grounded in reality and build enough tension to keep things from veering into the saccharine. The darkness that surrounds Cash and Delaney is enormous. Candid discussions of addiction and death by overdose abound, and a scene of attempted sexual assault is a shock to the system.
In the Wild Light is a love letter to possibility. Like the hero of the Pixar film Ratatouille who learns that “anyone can cook,” Cash (though not a rat, but certainly someone who feels like an outsider) learns that our creative impulses are an essential part of what we need to survive and heal. Zentner, who, like Cash, calls Tennessee home, asserts that anyone, even kids from the rural South with unremarkable pedigrees and pasts scabbed over after trauma, can live beautiful lives full of love. In an author’s note included with advance editions, Zentner says every book he writes is a love story. You can tell.