Editor’s Note: This review uses repeated quotes from the book that contain racial slurs.
At some point, dark social satire turns to horror. It can be powerful, but it can also miss its mark very easily. Percival Everett’s new novel Trees just hits the right mark. It’s a racial allegory steeped in history, shrouded in mystery and dripping with blood. An incendiary device you don’t want to drop.
The story is based on a series of puzzling and gruesome murders in the town of Money, Mississippi, the site of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder. It is an ominously familiar subject, America’s most infamous lynching, an atrocity whose wickedness – coupled with his black press coverage – galvanized activists and shocked much of the nation. Emmett, 14, a Chicago teenager who was visiting relatives for the summer, has been accused of hissing, flirting, grabbing and possibly just touching the hand of a married white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Three days later he was dead. A month later, his murderers were acquitted. Six decades later, Bryant at least partially retracted his request. (Or maybe not, it’s still disputed.)
These events left a mark on the national psyche. But the details fade away, so the pettiness of Till’s alleged violations of racial etiquette and the obscene brutality of the crime may not be widely known anymore. No work of art will ever uphold denied justice, but Trees does a spectacular resurrection job, starting with a biting echo of Bryant’s abjuration:
“What were you thinking, Grandma C?”
Granny C looked again. “About something I wish I hadn’t done.” About the lie I told them years ago about that Negro boy.
âOh Lawd,â Charlene said. âWe’re on it again. “
“I wronged that little pickaninny. As it says in the right book, what happens comes back.”
While no one recognizes it at first, the series of new murders that begin in Money shortly thereafter are callbacks to Emmett Till’s murder. The first two targets linked to the original crime, the adult and rude sons of the killers, both parents of the woman at the center of the alleged incident. But that’s not what attracts the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to the scene. The MBI sends two black detectives, Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, to investigate because a black man found at the scene of the first crime and thought dead has disappeared from the morgue and reappeared at the site of the second. Both crime scenes are equally gruesome, with some elements mimicking what happened in 1955. And then exactly the same thing happens a third time.
While local Sheriff Red Jetty wishes the aliens were gone and their investigation was limited to finding the missing body, figuring out who really did it (obviously not the dead scapegoat that keeps showing up at times. inconvenient) becomes their mission. And accomplishing that mission involves investigating a fictional version of a real city that time has forgotten, a bitter, left-behind community virtually untouched by racial progress except in its resentment. When there is a fourth death with the same MO, the FBI sends an agent to the scene. Even if the action eventually spreads to other areas, the epicenter remains in this cursed soil.
It is a novel of captivating contrasts: frank, ruthless prose, enhanced with black humor; a setting both familiar and strange; a masterful mixture defying the kinds of sacred and profane. The language is consciously old-fashioned in a modern and stylized way. Their epithets mingle more with the language at home in 1955 than today – so not just “nigger” but also “boy”, “colored” and “Negro”. But these flashbacks are also interspersed with reminders of the present. Shameless rednecks roam in red caps, racial epithets springing from their mouths like cow’s milk and grunts about “fake news.”
Even the casual reading is informed by Trumpism: âCharlene leafed through the Popular mechanics magazines and tried to listen. She looked at the science magazine instead of People. She hated them intellectual elites in PeopleThe folks at Money are well aware that the outside world views them as arrears. So are Ed and Jim, who report that Money is “chock full of ignorant peckerwoods stuck in the pre-war 19th century and living proof that inbreeding doesn’t lead to extinction.”
Everett even has fun with names. There’s a slippery waitress named Gertrude who is biracial and goes by the nickname “Dixie” at work, and a corrupt and Klan-loving coroner who goes by the colorful name of “Reverend Doctor Cad Fondle”. The walls of the local restaurant where Dixie works display “eerily colorized photographs of Elivis Presley and Billy Graham.” Adding to his 50s, speaking to one of his deputies about âcolored detectives,â Sheriff Jetty pokes fun at the city cops: âSmoother than snot on a doorknob. Smart-asses. we are just rubes. ” He’s not wrong, but when was the last time you heard someone use the word “rubbish?” Perhaps nothing sums up the style of the novel better than this description of the death of a particularly loathsome character:
Before he could say Lawdy, before he could say Jesssssssssss, before he could say nigger, a length of barbed wire was wrapped twice around his thick frog neck.
But the dark pun and local color are ultimately a prop to the larger project. Despite the absurd touches, the novel is deadly serious and reverent in its explanation of the legacy of lynching in all its forms and places, and devotes time and space to honoring the dead. Whether by chance or intentionally, Trees takes place in 2018, the same year that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama opened. With a highwire combination of thriller, horror, humor and razor blade insight Trees is a fitting tribute to a novel: Hard to let go and impossible to forget.
Slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communications specialist with a focus on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.