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Posts from the ‘Percival Everett’ Category

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.

Telephone

Everett Telephone

In Percival Everett’s latest novel Telephone (Graywolf, 2020), our narrator, Zach Wells, is a professor of geology and paleobiology. He knows a lot about fossils and caves, “especially the bones of creatures left a long, long time ago,” but he admits he’s not very engaged with the present moment. He tends to gravitate toward grand philosophical pronouncements, but usually fails to consider the little moral issues that pop up every day. He has basically lived his life safely and without much passion or introspection and now he’s depressed and has even had the occasional thought of suicide.

So what if I was not happy? My happiness was overrated. My daughter was happy. My wife was unworried. But I moved through my life with caution, and caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.

He’s also African American, although completely apolitical. During a campus protest over the police shooting of a Black teenager, several Black students come to his office. “We were wondering if you would join us, talk to us at a meeting tonight.”

“Who is ‘us’?” Zach asks. He explains that he’s never felt discriminated against at this university and he won’t join their protest. “I just crawl into caves and find fossils and then identify them. I am a scientist. I should probably be more political in my thinking and dealings with the school. But I’m not.”

Then Zach and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and will slowly take away her speech and motor skills in the meantime. This also threatens their marriage and Zach begins to spend long periods sitting in his office or at a campus bar. He becomes lost in a despair that leads him down to “a dark place, a place that I secretly began to recognize as a safe harbor.” And that safe harbor is actually the guilt in knowing that death is coming for his daughter, not for him. “Guilt,” he admits, “is a terrible thing.”

But it’s something trivial that finally drives Zach out of his funk and into action. He buys a jacket on eBay and when it arrives there is a note inside, written in Spanish, that reads “Help me.” Curious, he buys a shirt from the same seller and inside is another note. “Please Help to Us.” He buys another shirt. “Help us. They will not let us go.” The packages all originate from a small town in New Mexico and Zach begins to imagine that somewhere in the desert there are women being held in captivity, repairing used clothing to be sold on eBay. Perhaps these are some of the woman that are missing from Ciudad Júarez, Mexico. He decides that he must investigate. If he can’t save his daughter from her imminent death, perhaps he can help these women.

I knew absolutely nothing, but the notes were real, felt heavy in my hand, meaningful. This feeling, of course, fed my need to know something, anything at all, all the business with my child being nothing but questions. The nagging inquiry at the end of this red herring of a rainbow, though undeniably just another distraction, was epistemological. When intellectuals get scared, they run to fundamental philosophical problems: What is goodness What is beauty? What is it to know a thing? About knowing, I was not so much interested in whether I could know some thing but in what kind of thing I could know. I knew my cryptic notes were real, but I could not know what they meant, or whether they meant.

Throughout Telephone, Everett remains scrupulously non-judgemental about Zach. He doesn’t guide the reader toward any opinion of Zach. Zach might be worried about the “profound and yawning dullness” of his life, he doesn’t have many moralizing afterthoughts or pangs of guilt when he rebuffs the Black protesters or abandons his family in order to spend weeks searching the desert. The result is that the burden of worrying seems to shift to the reader. I found myself puzzling over these things. Why won’t Zach feel more sympathetic to the Black protesters? Why doesn’t he tell his wife why he’s going to New Mexico? What if his daughter dies while he is away scouting the desert for slave laborers? Zach may think he is the kind of narrator who confesses all to his reader, but a crucial part of him remains a mystery even to himself.

In the end, Zach leaves his wife and daughter behind to go out on his Quixotic search. But he has dedicated himself and his cause to his daughter. “I tried to tell my daughter, while she could understand, that women are hunted in this world.” He thinks of Ciudad Júarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, where hundreds of women have been “pursued, raped, imprisoned, tortured, and killed” over some twenty years or so.

The numbers were so very large, obscene, fescennine. Olga Perez. Hundreds of women have no name. Edith Longoria. Hundreds of women have no face. Guadalupe de la Rosa. Names. Name. Maria Najera. It was so uncomplicated, safe, simple to talk about numbers in El Paso, a world away. Nobody misses five hundred people. Nobody misses one hundred people. In Juárez, it was one. One daughter. One friend. One face. One name. Somebody misses one person.

This is what Everett does so well. He takes a simple scenario and turns it into a story that suddenly quivers with moral ramifications, forcing the reader to become uncomfortable enough to start asking deep questions. And there aren’t any easy answers.

If you need any further proof, it turns out that Percival Everett had one last trick up his sleeve. He wrote three completely different versions of Telephone, each with a different ending and each book has been published with a slightly different cover. There’s a recently recorded conversation with Everett over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Take a listen.