A Beautiful Mind – The New York Times

by Jeff Zentner

It is clear from the start that something rare, almost magical, is taking place in little Sawyer, Tenn., where the first episodes of Jeff Zentner’s “In the Wild Light” take place.“Snake King”). A genius girl lives there, and her mind is the straw that stirs this drink.

Delaney Doyle seems like a “forced parent”. She is the daughter of an opioid addict. He also has a photographic memory and a true commitment to science. Which means he’s a weirdo at school and elsewhere. Raised by his only friends, his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw, Cash Pruitt has been around since the night he discovered his dependent mother standing stiffly between the toilet and the locked door of “the cramped and miserable bathroom of our cramped and miserable trailer.” Delaney and Cash meet at a Narateen convention (a support group for young relatives of addicts) and instantly become close friends, a consolation for both.

The big, fascinating event in the novel, a turning point in their young life, is the result of Delaney’s scientific impulse. While canoeing on the Pigeon River with Cash, he finds a strange mold growing on a cave wall, takes samples, tests them, and, after notifying leading microbiologists, quickly learns that he has discovered a new antibiotic fungus bearing his name: penicillium delanum. A great honor for a 16 year old. NPR interviews her, and a wealthy lady in Alabama who listens and earns money in biotechnology offers her a scholarship to Middleford Academy in Connecticut, where she funds a STEM program and cutting-edge lab.

Delaney will not be left without Cash and is reluctant due to Papaw’s deteriorating health: “Now his appetite has moved to his always air-starved lungs.”

Cash narrates “In the Wild Light” in a voice that is observant, evocative and poetic, perfect for being a poet, and examples of his poetry are shared with the reader. He and Delaney board a Greyhound bus (high style for them) to get ready for school and arrive in a different world – look around, none of these new classmates went hungry or necessarily wore the same shirt three days in a row. Polished and polished pupils are daunting at first. Most won’t accept Cash or Delaney as they roam around campus. But there are also dear friends to be made in Middleford. It takes some time for them to find each other.

Zentner is extremely generous with his characters, showing us their feelings, thoughts and dreams. Cash and Delaney are given short, concise comments that provide additional information about who they are.

Cash: “When you grow up with ugliness and corruption, you surrender to beauty wherever and whenever you find it.”

“Some are not good at not understanding everything. But I’m not afraid of a world full of mysteries.”

“I always thought she had a strangely graceful beauty. The pulling of something towards perfection and breaking in all directions.”

Delaney: Did you know that the smell of mown grass is a danger signal?

“Jellyfish are biologically immortal.”

“If you could know everyone who has ever loved you, would you want to know?”

Zentner evokes a poignant and rich novel about friendship, loss, kind strangers, blindness so often seen in the search for love, and love itself. Her heroes raised their eyes to the sky. “I take off my shirt and press it to my face in the dark,” Cash recalls at the end of his first Thanksgiving away from home, “like a sailor, nose against the wind, looking for a clue of a green shore ahead.”

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