The American writer and academic Percival Everett has written a remarkably clever and provocative novel here. At heart, the book is a blistering expose of the ingrained racism in certain sectors of American society and the country’s devastating history of lynchings, specifically targeting people of colour. However, rather than addressing these issues in a conventional literary novel, Everett plays with the tropes of genre fiction, using elements of satire, humour, horror and surrealism to create a thoroughly engaging page-turner with some vital social critique at its core.
The story opens with two back-to-back murders in Money, Mississippi, an area largely populated by rednecks with scant regard for racial equality. In each case, two bodies are found at the crime scene – a mutilated, castrated white man with barbed wire wrapped around his neck and a badly-beaten black man who appears to be holding the other victim’s testicles in his hands. Stranger still, the black body in each incident is the same one – a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in the mid-1950s after a white woman accused him of causing offence. What’s more, the two dead white men, Wheat Bryant and Junior Junior Milam, are closely related to Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till back in the ‘50s – an accusation Carolyn (aka Granny C) now regrets.
The local police, led by Sheriff Red Jetty, are baffled by the two cases, but help soon arrives in the shape of two black Special Detectives – Ed and Jim – from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (‘MBI’ for short). While the townsfolk view these super-smart detectives with a degree of suspicion, they soon have the measure of the local police, if not the perpetrator(s) behind the crimes themselves. As the investigations get underway, rumours of strange supernatural forces begin to surface, especially given the black body’s resemblance to Emmett Till…
Everett has a lot of fun with stereotypes and names in this novel, portraying certain influential white residents of Money for what they really are – fervent racists of the most pernicious kind. For instance, the town’s Coroner, Reverend Doctor Fondle, is deeply unnerved by these incidents as he rallies his fellow members of the local Ku Klux Klan.
“We got ourselves a situation, White brothers”, Fondle said. “I’m afraid what we’re lookin’ at is a real nigger uprising. Two of our own brothers lay dead, and a killin’ nigger is on the gawddamn loose. I seen him, seen him close up, scarred up by Satan himself. A nigger that’s as good at fakin’ death as anybody you will ever find. I seen him dead, and then he weren’t.” (p. 108)
During their time in Money, Ed and Jim cross paths with Gertrude (aka Dixie), who works as a waitress in a local diner. Gertrude helps the detectives by introducing them to her super-sharp great-grandmother, Mama Z, who knows pretty much everything about the goings-on in the local area over the past hundred years. As it turns out, Mama Z has compiled records of almost every lynching in the US – police shootings included – since 1913, the year of her father’s death. In part, she does this ‘because somebody has to’ – if Mama Z doesn’t do it, who will? With her knowledge of the local history and gossip, Mama Z suggests a couple of people for the detectives to see. ‘If you want to know a place, you talk to its history.”
As the narrative unfolds, eerily similar murders are reported across the US – firstly in Mississippi, then in other states, including South Carolina and Alabama. Alongside the original killings closely linked to the Emmett Till case, it seems a wave of copycat incidents is sweeping across the nation – culminating in retribution on a large scale, with numerous white victims being found at various sites, all attacked and castrated as before. With this escalation in violence, Ed and Jim are joined by Special Agent Herberta Hind from the FBI, another smart cookie who also happens to be black.
Everett draws brilliantly on his creative skills here, portraying these events with an outrageous seam of dark humour. On the surface, the Whites for Social Justice’s responses to the killings might seem risible, highlighting the absurdities at play as they prepare for the race war long anticipated by the group. However, Everett never lets us forget the seriousness and brutality of the situation he is tackling so smartly in this book.
“What we gonna do?”
“We have to get everybody together,” Morris repeated.
“You make it sound like we got numbers,” Rupter said. “Far as I can see, we got us and two other people. Where’s this war taking place? My boy’s got Little League this week.”
“Yeah,” Fester said. “We is scattered all over the country. The very thing that makes the FBI afraid of us is our weakness.” (p. 265)
As the narrative progresses, the repeated reports of various killings might feel a little unnecessary, as one could argue that the reader will soon get the idea after the first four or five accounts. However, I think Everett is making a conscious point here. By mentioning several separate incidents and victims, he is highlighting both the importance of each individual case and the cumulative gravity of events as they pile up. Perhaps this an attempt to address the ‘erasure’ of individual victims of racially-motivated lynchings over time – a theme reflected in the actions of Damon Thruff, an influential friend and academic enlisted by Gertrude to review Mama Z’s work.
He [Damon] found it all depressing, not that lynching could be anything but. However, the crime, the practice, the religion of it, was becoming more pernicious as he realized that the similarity of their deaths had caused these men and women to be at once erased and coalesced like one piece, like one body. They were all number and no number at all, many and one, a symptom, a sign. (p. 189)
As Damon works his way through Mama Z’s records, he notes each victim’s name in pencil, making them feel ‘real again’ rather than just a statistic. Moreover, the act of writing these names in pencil and subsequently erasing them is designed to set the victims free, liberating them from the weight of such a tragic history.
Stylistically, The Trees reads like a detective novel – it’s fast-paced and whip-smart, while the passages of outrageously funny dialogue and slightly surreal interludes add significantly to its appeal.
“What a fuckin’ mess. A goddamn clusterfuck.”
“Chief, is clusterfuck one word or two?” Jethro asked.
“Get back to the goddamn station.”
“Yessir.” (p. 31)
As the quote on the book’s cover suggests, what Everett does so well here is to navigate these chilling, contemporary issues with satire, surrealism and knockout comedy, pushing his scenario as far as he can take it (certainly within the bounds of a page-turning novel). Moreover, as other readers have already observed, there is the basis of razor-sharp film or TV mini-series here, preferably directed by Spike Lee or Jordan Peele. Both the subject matter and the style feel right up their street.
There’s even a hilarious vignette involving a certain US President – no prizes for guessing which one! – and his response to the crisis. As a polemic, it comes across as barking mad and frighteningly believable all at once, just like so many other actions of this loose cannon himself.
Naturally, I’m not going to reveal how The Trees plays out – you’ll have to read the book itself to discover that! However, let me reassure you that it’s absolutely worth the ride. This is a very clever satire, conveyed in the guise of a propulsive detective novel, raising thought-provoking questions about justice, revenge and deep-rooted racism in the US today – not least the country’s toxic history with lynchings and other racially-motivated violence.
A vital, provocative and hugely enjoyable book that deserves to be widely read. I’m delighted to see it on the Booker shortlist – a terrific choice indeed!
The Trees is published by Influx Press; personal copy.