Percival Everett: The Trees (Graywolf Press, 2021) [IBR2022]

At a certain point, dark social satire bleeds into horror. That can be powerful, but it can also very easily miss its target. Percival Everett’s new novel The Trees hits just the right mark. It’s a racial allegory grounded in history, shrouded in mystery, and dripping with blood. An incendiary device you don’t want to put down.

Carole V. Bell, NPR review

That’s a very good description: a detective novel layered onto a sort-of historical fiction book blended with horror and fantasy. It even works in a couple of minor references to Jaws and In The Heat of the Night, and probably a few other cultural items I didn’t recognize.  But more than anything else, it’s about the continuing, and accelerating, reluctance of USAians to admit, much less apologize and atone for, our racist roots, and shows one way that particular raisin in the sun might explode.

The story opens in Money, Mississippi, with a gruesome double murder: one white man named Junior Junior Milam, and one unknown Black man. While the local police are asking questions, the Black man’s body goes missing from the morgue. Some ideas are tossed around – he wasn’t really dead seems to predominate – a second murder shows exactly the same pattern: a local white man, and… the same Black man who was dead and then disappeared. This time he’s clearly confirmed to be very, very dead, but again goes missing, under seemingly impossible circumstances. “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead,” says a deputy, in one of the most loaded statements of the book.

Bring in the state Bureau of Investigation. Alas, the two Special Agents are Black, which doesn’t sit particularly well with the local white sheriff, already feeling superseded.

That’s the basic setup. If you’ve ever read detective fiction, you know things get a lot more complicated. And if you’re familiar with the name Emmett Till, they get a lot darker.

Everett does some subtle things here, starting with that line “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead.” We see the town sheriff, upset about how things are going, at breakfast:

Red Jetty took a bite of toast and put it back on his plate. He sat at the table with his wife, Agnes. His dog, an American foxhound, stood behind him, his long snout resting on Jetty’s leg.
“You okay, Red?” Agnes asked.
“I’m okay.”
“The only time Wallace puts his face in your lap like that is when you’re upset,” she said.

Now, there are a lot of Wallaces that could refer to: Mike, David Foster, Alfred Russell, Stevens. But in this context, my money’s on George “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Everett doesn’t hammer it home, just leaves it there. He does that a lot. Like when he takes us inside a Klan meeting – or what’s left of the Klan in Money, Mississippi – where someone complains that the same guy has been Grand Kleagle for a long time.

“We ain’t had no election because we ain’t had no gaddamn meetins,” from still another.
“That’s true, Jared,” Donald said.
“Used to be back when my daddy was alive, we had meetins all the time, every week,” Jared said.
“Elections too,” another man said. “They was always votin’ back in them days. Right?”
“And they used to have cross burnins a lot more and family picnics and softball games and all such,” said Donald. “I remember eatin’ cake next to that glowing cross. I loved my mama’s cake.”
“Yeah.” Several voiced their agreement.
“We don’t do nothin’ now,” a man complained. “I don’t even know where my hood is. I don’t even own a rope.”

Ah, heritage, so important to the (Confederate) flag-waving South. They hold an impromptu election – and elect the same guy. Who just happens to be the coroner, the Reverend Doctor Cad Fondle. Who is neither a doctor (very few non-urban coroners are) nor a Reverend of any official religion. And who ends up… well, guess.

Everett has a good time with names. Junior Junior, Digby, Red, Wheat, all local white boys in Money, Mississippi. But when the Black agents from the Missisippi Bureau of Investigation arrive, they’re named Ed and Jim. The FBI agent who eventually shows up, however, is a Black woman named Herberta “Herbie” Hind, so whites don’t have a monopoly on fun names.

If this all sounds a little like reverse racism dumping on dumb Southern whites, well, yeah, it is. I found it uncomfortable reading. None of the locals can put two sentences together without tripping over a racial epithet, and they get tied up in knots trying to talk to outsiders without giving away their DNA-deep racism, a racism that becomes more and more important as it becomes evident that the murdered white men are sons of the original group that lynched Emmett Till.

Still feel bad about those silly names? Because beneath the detective fiction and the horror story and the kind of goofy revenge fantasy it turns into, it’s a book about the thousands of people of color who were – and who continue to be, when you consider the kinds of murders going on today –lynched, and the lack of justice for such crimes.

And then we have other forms of injustice, summed up in the character of Damon Nathan Thruff, another oddly named Black character:

Damon Nathan Thruff was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. He held a PhD in molecular biology from Harvard, a PhD in psychobiology from Yale, and a PhD in Eastern philosophy from Columbia. He was twenty-seven years old. He had published three books on cellular regeneration, all issued by Cambridge University Press, and a two-volume work on the biological and philosophical origins of racial violence in the United States published by Harvard University Press. On this particular day, he was sitting at the desk in his tiny university office in the Department of Ethnic Studies (because they didn’t know where to put him), trying to compile a list of names of people who might write letters in support of his tenure bid. He had been denied tenure the year before but was being given a second chance, what the university administration was calling an affirmative reconsideration. The reason given for this denial of tenure was his productivity. The Dean told him, flatly, that no one really believed that he was capable of so much work of such quality so quickly. And so he was stuck with a one year appointment called the Phillis Wheatley Chair in Remedial Studies. Part of his second (gift) bid for tenure required that he not publish anything for a year. Such restraint from active scholarship might show the proper commitment to his proper place, was what the Dean told him.

Mama Z is one of the locals, an impossibly old Black woman who’s been keeping records of lynchings going back to the day she was born in, as she claims it, 1913, the same year her daddy was lynched. Her file room is a powerful image: twenty-three gray metal file cabinets. “The drawers were like those in a morgue,” thinks Jim when he sees them. And the Professor who wrote a book about racial violence, a book Mama Z knows well – “you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage” – is so overcome by these twenty-three file cabinets, all full of racial violence, sits down and starts writing:

“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real. Don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon’s face. “Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on, child,” the old woman said.

 Say Their Names. And he intends to, every one of them, all twenty-three cabinets full.

This image is so powerful, it made its way to the book’s cover. It’s hard to see, but the deep-blue background is imprinted with what looks like a striped design – maybe mimicking the rows of file cabinets? – but is actually a list of names in just slightly lighter print. Pick a name (it takes some looking to read, but it can be done) and google it – Say Their Names – and you’ll find their stories. James Scott, accused of sexual assault on a 14-year-old white girl in 1923, was kidnapped from his jail cell in Columbia, MO and hanged by a white mob. William Miller, an Alabama coal miner and labor activist, was likewise dragged from his jail cell and hanged in 1903. Chee  “Gene” Loong Tong, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, was one of seventeen Chinese men shot and hanged by a Los Angeles mob in 1871. Leo Lung Siang, one of twenty-eight Chinese murdered by white coal miners who burned down the houses of Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.  Then there are the names more familiar to us: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all: the numerous “unknown male” entries.

Mama Z didn’t just collect names, however. Where possible, police and coroner’s reports are outlined as well. Such as:

The individual was found bound at the ankles and wrists with some kind of coated wire. The individual was found suspended from the large branch of an oak tree by a light brown rope tied in a loop around his neck. The individual was pronounced dead at the scene by the coroner. The cause of death was determined to be a self-inflicted knife wound to the neck.

Everett leaves it for us to compare that to the contemporary version:

An Arkansas medical examiner has ruled that Chavis Carter, the 21-year-old man killed by a gunshot wound to the head while handcuffed in the back of a police car, committed suicide….

CBS News, 2012

As the book goes on, things get more and more farcical, with similar murders happening in multiple cities. Finally we end up at the White House, where an unnamed President cowers under his desk and demands “my bunker.” As amusing as this might seem, I felt it derailed things. But I give Everett a lot of credit for capturing the voice perfectly: “Did you hear that screaming? That was the loudest screaming that anyone has ever heard. You wouldn’t believe how loud that screaming was.”

The novel returns at the end to the file room with all the central – that is, Black – characters, and Damon typing names. The last line is a question, a question maybe we should all be asking ourselves in this moment when school boards are prohibiting teaching history and literature that might upset white people, with no regard to how Black people might feel about it. “Should we stop him?”

The title puzzled me for a while. I’m pretty sure it refers to the song “Strange Fruit,” which is quoted in the text (as is “Mississippi Goddamn”):

Southern trees bear a 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 magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

“Strange Fruit,” Lyrics & Music by Abel Meerpool,1937

But are the trees, stained by the blood of lynching victims, crying out for justice – or were they complicit in the lynchings and thus are tainted by that same blood that marks guilt? It could go either way. I think the strongest argument by far uses the subject of the book – the lynching victims of the past centuries – as well as  the biblical “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” as support for the first option. But it’s possible, given the present-day murders at least start out with descendants – the family trees – of the people who set up and lynched Emmett Till, to make a case for the second option.

I became aware of this book via the Five Books article on the short list for this year’s Booker prize. I don’t pay a lot of attention to prizes – I’m much happier when I look for content or style that interests me – but I took a look, as I do most of the Five Books lists. The description interested me: a detective novel about racism that included humor and fantasy. I’ve enjoyed several “Black satire” novels in the past few years, most recently Black Buck, so I investigated further and ended up ordering it. I liked Everett’s comment about his use of humor in his interview with the Booker Prize people:

There is, of course, a distinction to be made between irony and humor and absurdity; a distinction that does not make them mutually exclusive. If one can get someone laughing, then one can use that relaxed state to present other things.

Percival Everett, Booker Short List Interview

I didn’t laugh much while reading the book, but that didn’t surprise me; historically I have a hard time with humor. But I didn’t need to be lulled into a state of acceptance to face the grim realities presented. I admired the subtlety with which Everett dropped certain references, and it makes me wonder how many I missed. The scariest part is not the future the book suggests, but the present, and how much like the past it continues to be – and how much more like the past it might become in the next few years.