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Everett’s Risk

“We got ourselves some kind of crime here, Lordy.”

If it weren’t for the subject of Percival Everett’s novel The Trees, it might be tempting to think it slightly off-beat like Thomas Pyncheon’s comic, conspiratorial The Crying of Lot 49, with its two-dimensional characters and the loopy names that Everett doles out, like Junior Junior, Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Cad Fondle and his wife Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetica Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. On a superficial level, The Trees (Graywolf Press, 2021) is a loose parody of the classic murder mystery. Who murdered Junior Junior, Wheat Bryant, and Granny C and left the bodies of the men genitally mutilated? The local “idiot deputies” are inept—and racist, to boot—so a couple of African American Special Detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and a Special Agent from the FBI are brought in to try to solve the case. But Everett keeps upping the ante. Why are there Black corpses next to each of their bodies? Bodies that keep disappearing from the morgue or from police custody! And what’s with the copycat murders that start cropping up all over America? What’s in Mama Z’s back room? For a short spell, this could almost pass as a Pyncheon novel.

Except that The Trees turns out to be about lynching. It’s also about a particular lynching. The first clue, which I didn’t catch, is the novel’s location: Money, Mississippi (“named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony”). It turns out that the fathers of Junior Junior and Wheat Bryant—men named J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant—were the two men who belatedly confessed to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, after being found innocent at trial. Granny C is Carolyn Bryant, whose false claim that Emmett Till flirted with her led to his lynching. Someone in Everett’s novel is seeking a kind of “retributive justice,” more than a half century after the original event.

After the three initial murders, more keep happening, in Mississippi and then beyond. And beside every new mutilated white body lies another Black corpse. There are hints that each of these killings is somehow a revenge murder for a past lynching. The darkened mirror that Everett holds up is a reminder that lynching is indelibly embedded in America’s history. It’s always been there, if we’d only look. “Everybody talks about genocides around the world,” one character says, “but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices. Where there are no mass graves, no one notices.”

Robert Colescott, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: St. Sebastian, 1986
© Robert Colescott Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In the back room of a character named Mama Z are filing cabinets with the records of “almost everything ever written about every lynching in these United States of America since 1913″ and a folder on every person lynched. It is there that a hapless, but dully heroic academic, a man named Damon Nathan Thruff, starts to write down the names of all those lynched individuals, using a number 3 pencil. This is followed by a full chapter that is dedicated to a list of more than three hundred of those names.* (Croatian writer Daša Drndić posted a similar list in her 2012 documentary novel Trieste from MacLehose Press, a forty-four page, double-columned list that named the 9,000 or so Jews “who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945.”) Here’s Mama Z and Thruff:

Mama Z pulled the pad toward her and looked at the list. “Why are you doing this?” she asked.

“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 face. “Why pencil?”

“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”

“Carry on, child,” the old woman said.

But outside Mama Z’s place, people are using more than number 3 pencils.

Some called it a throng. A reporter on the scene used the word horde. A minister of an AME church in Jefferson County, Mississippi, called it a congregation. Whatever it was called, it was at least five hundred bodies strong and growing and had abandoned all stealth. The congregation could be seen cresting a ridge then coming down toward the town like a tornado. And like a tornado it would destroy one life and leave the one beside it unscathed. It made a noise. A moan that filled the air. Rise, it said, Rise.

Everett, ever elusive as a writer, keeps edging The Trees between contemporary farce and the despair of history. He portrays white Mississippi (and the white South, by extension) with wicked satire, full of illiterate rednecks whose free time seems to consist of drinking beer, watching daytime television and Fox News, squishing pimples, and talking cartoony redneck “sumbitch” talk. A Trump-like President gives a speech about how “the folks from Europe rescued the Africans from each other” and how Blacks “are not White like Americans are supposed to be.” Everett pretends to hide his fury behind comedy and caricature and propels the plot forward so that The Trees almost reads like a page-turner. But he knows exactly what he is doing here. He’s practically daring us to enjoy his novel too much. His novel about lynching.

2020.0077.01; Marker, historical. Defaced Emmett Till Historic Marker. From the collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Museum.
  • There is no clear explanation for who is listed in the approximately 325 names shown in Everett’s book. According to the NAACP, at least 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968, with 581 of them happening in Mississippi. More than 325 were committed in the U.S. after 1913.

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