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Percival Everett's Latest Grounds Racial Allegory In History, Horror And Blood

<em>The Trees</em>, by Percival Everett
The Trees, by Percival Everett

Editor's note: This review uses repeated quotations from the book that contain racial slurs.

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.

The narrative hinges on a series of confounding and gruesome murders in the town of Money, Mississippi, site of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. It's a grimly familiar topic, the United States' most infamous lynching, an atrocity whose viciousness — coupled with its coverage in the Black press — galvanized activists and shocked much of the nation. Fourteen-year old Emmett, a Chicago teen visiting relatives for the summer, was accused of whistling at, flirting with, grabbing and or maybe just touching the hand of a married white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Three days later, he was dead. A month later his killers were acquitted. Six decades later Bryant at least partially recanted her claim. (Or perhaps not; it's still disputed.)

Those events left a mark on the national psyche. But details fade, so that both the pettiness of Till's alleged violations of racial etiquette and the obscene brutality of the crime may no longer be widely known. No work of art will ever right justice denied, but The Trees does a spectacular job of resurrection, beginning with a mordant echo of Bryant's recanting:

"What was you thinking on, Granny C?"

Granny C stared off again. "About something I wished I hadn't done. About the lie I told all them years back on that nigger boy."

"Oh Lawd," Charlene said. "We on that again."

"I wronged that little pickaninny. Like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around."

Though no one recognizes it at first, the series of new killings that begin in Money soon after are callbacks to the murder of Emmett Till. The first two target people related to the original crime, the grown and loutish sons of the killers, both kin to the woman at the center of the alleged incident. But that's not what draws 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 disappeared from the morgue and reemerged at the site of the second. The two crime scenes are similarly horrific, with some elements mimicking what happened in 1955. And then the exact same thing happens a third time.

Though the local sheriff Red Jetty would like the outsiders gone and their investigation be limited to finding the missing body, determining who really did it (obviously not the dead scapegoat who keeps popping up at inopportune times) becomes their mission. And accomplishing that mission involves investigating a fictional version of a real town that time forgot, a bitter and left-behind community virtually untouched by racial progress except in its resentment. When there's a fourth death with the same M.O., the FBI dispatches an agent to the scene. Even though the action eventually spreads to other areas, the epicenter remains in that cursed ground.

It's a novel of compelling contrasts: frank, pitiless prose leavened by dark humor; a setting that is simultaneously familiar and strange; a genre-defying, masterful blend of the sacred and the profane.

It's a novel of compelling contrasts: frank, pitiless prose leavened by dark humor; a setting that is simultaneously familiar and strange; a genre-defying, masterful blend of the sacred and the profane. The language is self-consciously old-fashioned in a modern, stylized way. Their epithets are mixed with language more at home in 1955 than today — so not just "nigger" but also "boy," "colored" and "Negro." But those throwbacks are also interspersed with reminders of the present. Unabashed rednecks roam around in red caps, racial epithets spilling from their mouths like milk from a cow, and grumblings about "fake news."

Even casual reading is informed by Trumpism: "Charlene thumbed through the Popular Mechanics magazines and tried to eavesdrop. She looked at the science magazine instead of People. She hated them intellectual elites in People." The people of Money are very much aware that the outside world considers them to be backward hillbillies. And so do Ed and Jim, who report that Money is "chock-full of know-nothing peckerwoods stuck in the prewar nineteenth century and living proof that inbreeding does not lead to extinction."

Everett even has fun with the names. There's a slippery waitress named Gertrude who is biracial and goes by the moniker of "Dixie" at work, and a corrupt, Klan-loving coroner who is colorfully named "Reverend Doctor Cad Fondle." The walls of the local diner where Dixie works showcase "weirdly colorized photographs of Elivis Presley and Billy Graham." Adding to its 1950s-ness, speaking to one of his deputies about the "colored detectives," Sheriff Jetty sneers at the city cops: "Slicker than snot on a doorknob. Smart-asses. Think we're just rubes." He's not wrong, but when was the last time you heard someone use the word "rube?" Perhaps nothing epitomizes the novel's style more than this description of one particularly loathsome character's death:

Before he could say Lawdy, before he could say Jesssssssussss, before he could say nigger, a length of barbed wire was wrapped twice around his thick, froglike neck.

But dark wordplay and local color are ultimately a sideshow to the bigger project. Despite the absurdist touches, the novel is deadly serious and reverential in its explication of the legacy of lynching in all forms and places and devotes time and space to honoring the dead. Whether by coincidence or intent, The Trees is set in 2018, the same year that The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama opened its doors. With a highwire combination of whodunnit, horror, humor and razor blade sharp insight The Trees is a fitting tribute of a novel: Hard to put down and impossible to forget.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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Carole V. Bell