“An audacious balancing act” – The Trees by Percival Everett

IMG_2022-5-1-200730Where to start? The Trees is a comic supernatural detective-slash-horror novel grappling with the unresolved legacy of anti-Black lynchings in the United States. Intrigued? Well, you should be. Let’s rewind.

It’s 2018. Ed and Jim, both Black, are Special Detectives with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation; they’re called in to help with a weird set of crimes in the township of Money in Leflore County. A couple of local White men—well-known, mega-racist, and disliked by everyone—have been separately and brutally murdered, and another dead body, that of an unidentified Black man, was found at the scene of both crimes, each time with the testicles of the White man clutched in his hands. The cops are baffled. The White locals are getting all fired up; their Klan branch is getting itchy. Grim, right? But there’s more: Money, Mississippi, is where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched back in 1955; the dead men are the (fictional) sons of Till’s very real and never-convicted killers. And the Black corpse found by the White ones? A dead ringer for Till himself. But it doesn’t stop there: similar killings are happening all over the country. Ed and Jim seek the help of Mama Z, an ancient root doctor who’s devoted her life to chronicling historic and present-day lynchings, from that of her own father in the year of her birth, 1913, right up to Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and, in the novel’s present-day, Maurice Granton, shot in the back by Chicago police officers in 2018. Who’s behind these new killings? Will Ed and Jim figure it out before the enraged crackers catch up with them? And what’s Donald Trump’s take on it all?

First up: despite how it may sound, The Trees is a work of absolute comic genius. Everett’s ear for dialogue is masterful, from that of the faux-Christian expletive-laden KKK members and their families, to the sardonic wit of the waitress in the local diner (the ‘Dinah’). One of the murder victims is called Junior Junior, after his daddy, also known as Junior; after Junior Junior’s death, the town’s mortician remarks to the widow that it’s an interesting name.

‘“Ain’t it?” Daisy said. “I always thought so too. That’s why I named my boy Triple J.”’

The Dinah is the result of poor spelling; three cops in LA meet up and they’re called Ho, Chi and Minh; in a cadaver supplier’s warehouse, Jim watches two workers play soccer with a head. With every page, Everett makes his readers laugh, which is a killer move, because no matter how gruesome the plot gets, no matter how sombre and thought-provoking, you’ll still read on avidly. It’s an audacious balancing act, because the humour never once comes at the expense of the politics, and make no mistake: this is a political book. This is a book that forces a necessary reckoning with American racist violence, both buried and blatant, vigilante- and state-administered. Ed and Jim and their fellow Black cops have to confront the messiness of their own positions (see, too, Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence); White families can no longer plaster over the atrocities committed by their people. Everett balances, too, between the supernatural (ghosts and/or zombies seeking revenge) and canny heist (body-snatchers extraordinaire), and settles, finally, on the metaphorical: think what you like, but the past is real, and it will come for you.

This is a novel perfectly suited to our current times, as neo-fascism vies globally with a resurgent anti-racist Left, but most specifically, of course, with a White America forced to address its own complacency by the mass uprisings occasioned by the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in 2020. In The Trees, the uprising is literally a rising up of the murdered dead. Back in 1955, Emmett Till’s mother fought to make the White world see what it had done to her child: she showed it his brutalised body. What do you do, in the twenty-first century, when Black bodies are still being beaten, abused, discarded by the state? One of Everett’s characters points out the hypocrisy of an American public quick to fury over outrages abroad: ‘but when the killing is slow and spread out over a hundred years, nobody notices.’ Well, in this book, everybody’s going to notice. And the question becomes: should that process be stopped?

Any Cop?: If I was to begin to compare The Trees to other works of fiction, it would be hard to know where to stop. This is Beloved and Sing, Unburied, Sing meets The Only Good Indians, The Underground Railroad and David Peace (history and fiction collide), plus, say, the films of Jordan Peele (he needs to adapt this), a chunk of the Bible, with a load of Dashiell Hammett (minus the sexism) thrown in. This is essential reading for anyone who likes crime, horror, comedy, and/or incredibly sophisticated literature about racial injustices past and present. So, you know, pretty much everyone. And it’s a good thing that Everett has more than thirty books in his back catalogue, because it’s unlikely I’ll get tired of his work for very long time. One of the best novels I’ll read all year, guaranteed.

Valerie O’Riordan

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