Percival Everett, The Trees: A novel (Graywolf Press 2021)
Before the meeting: This is another excellent book I wouldn’t have read but for my wonderful book group.
The book moves disconcertingly from genre to genre. After a bit of hayseed comedy, it develops into one of those murder mysteries where wisecracking out-of-town detectives arrive to help resentful local cops with an apparently insoluble case. Then there’s some social satire as the detectives, who are both African-American, make fun of the racism endemic in the small town. It’s all good TV detective show fun with an anti-racist bent.
Then the corpses multiply, each murder scene featuring a dead and mutilated White person paired with a long-dead Black person whose clenched fist holds the other’s severed testicles. It could be a highly implausible serial-killer yarn, or a revenge ghost story about racist violence in the USA (against Chinese people as well as African Americans, as the narrative makes unnervingly clear). A magic realist parable, perhaps, in which the murder scenes eerily evoke, and partly reverse, iconic images of lynchings? Or a tale of witchcraft? Certainly one key character identifies as a witch, but then she is also an amateur archivist who has accumulated records of thousands of lynchings from 1913 to the present. Or maybe, as the plot widens, it’s a zombie apocalypse, one whose allegorical meaning lies right on the surface. And Donald Trump makes an appearance. In the end, it’s a genre mash-up that manages – perilously – to stay coherent.
It’s all – to quote Quentin Tarantino from another context – ‘so much fun’. But it doesn’t lose sight of the monstrous historical reality. For example, one chapter consists of a ten-page list of names, in the manner of a spread in Claudia Rankine’s brilliant book, Citizen (my blog post here), and reminding me of Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah’s short story ‘The Finkelstein 5’, in which Black vigilantes kill random white people while shouting the names of Black people who have been murdered (my blog post about Friday Black, the book the story appears in, here).
A book that plays around like this with form and genre, that preaches a little, chills a lot and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, has to work brilliantly at the scene level and even the sentence level. This one does. I could give lots of examples, but take the moment at about the one-quarter mark, when the detectives, Ed and Jim, visit the juke joint on the edge of town.
The narrator doesn’t say so, but everyone in the joint is Black. Apart from one character who passes for White and another who is revealed to be Black late in the book, this is Ed and Jim’s first encounter with the town’s Black people. (In classic movie structure the one-quarter mark is the second turning point, often involving a change of location.) When they walk in, everything stops:
Jim and Ed stared back at the staring faces.(Page 75)
‘Yes, we’re cops,’ Jim said loudly. ‘And we don’t like it either. Everybody carry on. Have fun. Break the law, if you like.’
A couple of people laughed, then others. There was the sound of someone breaking a rack at the pool table in back. The dancing and chatting started up again.
Maybe you have to enjoy writers like Elmore Leonard to be tickled by moments like this. I do and I am. You almost don’t notice that what is being described is a tacit alliance, or at least deep mutual understanding, among the Black characters, whether they’re cops, people relaxing at a bar, or possibly murderers.
What happens as Ed and Jim question the bartenders continues on that note. The bartenders express no sorrow for the racist White men who have been killed, but it’s different with the photograph of the Black corpse whose face has been beaten in. This corpse has appeared at the first murder scene, disappeared, turned up at the second murder scene, and disappeared again. Soon after this scene he will be identified [rest of this sentence whited out, but you can select it with your cursor if you don’t mind spoilers], mistakenly but with great thematic impact, with Emmett Till, whose murder sparked outrage in 1955. At this stage, most of the townspeople, Black and White, believe that this ancient corpse is somehow the murderer.
Jim pulled the picture from his pocket. ‘This is kind of hard to look at, but tell me if you recognise this man.’(Page 76)
The man cringed at the sight. ‘Ain’t nobody gonna recognise him. What the fuck happened?’
Jim shrugged. ‘If this man is alive, we want to find him before that cracker sheriff and his deputies do.’
‘How can that man be alive?’ the bartender asked.
Jim shrugged again.
‘Franklin, come here and look at this.’
The other bartender came over. Jim held up the photo for him to see. ‘Lord, have mercy. What’s that?’
‘That’s a human being,’ Ed said. ‘Somebody did that to another human being. Do you recognise him?’
The second man shook his head. ‘He must be dead. Is he dead?’
‘On and off,’ Jim said.
The man offered a puzzled look.
‘We don’t know,’ Ed said.
‘Somebody did that to another human being’ lands like a well placed rock in the middle of the hard-boiled humour. It’s a sentence that is to gather force like a snowball in an avalanche. An awful lot of the writing in this book is as impeccable as that.
Why The Trees? Trees don’t feature in the book much at all. But a character sings the Billie Holiday classic (written by Abel Meeropol / Lewis Allan):
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Nearer to the meeting (spoiler): On Friday 28 April news broke that Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose accusation led to a notorious racist murder, had died. Percival Everett got there just before Real Life: in the novel Carolyn Bryant, aka Granny C, is the third person to die in the presence of the small Black corpse. It’s unlikely that the Real Life Carolyn Bryant even heard of this book, but the timing!
After the meeting: Tragically I came down with a heavy cold (not Covid) on the morning of the meeting, and spared them all the risk of infection. It’s now a couple of days later and the customary brief account of the evening hasn’t materialised, so all I can say in this section of my blog post is: a) one chap beforehand said he could barely read for tears of laughter, until the book went dark and the laughter dried up; b) on the night itself, the conversation turned – as it does – to identity politics, including pronouns (several of us have gender non-conforming family members or friends); and c) they all had a good time while I stayed home nursing a stuffy nose.