Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
AP

Review: 'The Trees,' by Percival Everett

  • 0
"The Trees," by Percival Everett.

"The Trees," by Percival Everett. (Graywolf Press/TNS)

FICTION: In this dark but witty satire, Percival Everett explores racism, vengeance and the horrors of lynching.

"The Trees" by Percival Everett; Graywolf Press (308 pages, $16)

———

Trees, when left unmolested, typically enjoy a long life span. Imagine if trees in the United States, particularly in the South, could speak. Many might tell us of something sinister they got roped into — literally — over decades. That something is lynching.

Percival Everett, whose "Telephone" (2020) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has managed to write a fast-paced and witty novel about a somber subject that lends itself to neither treatment. "The Trees" gives us the zombielike return to life, and the search for vengeance, of people who were lynched.

Significantly, despite skewering everyone from rural Southern whites to Donald Trump, "The Trees" is never flippant about those felled by racist violence. "The horror that was lynching was called life by Black America," we are reminded by the omniscient narrator.

Not all victims of lynching were hanged. Take Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who, on a visit to the town of Money in Mississippi, allegedly whistled at a white woman. As punishment, the woman's husband and his half-brother tortured Till to death.

That was in 1955 — but perhaps it's not the end of the story. The two separate killings that kick off "The Trees" take place in contemporary Money. The victims are the sons of Till's murderers. As a local woman, referring to Till, puts it, "They say he come back to get revenge. I guess he got it."

"The Trees" is an ensemble piece, but certain characters figure more prominently than others. Ed Morgan and Jim Davis are the two wisecracking (Black) Mississippi Bureau of Investigation detectives dispatched from Hattiesburg to tackle the Money murders case. They recall Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones of the late Chester Himes' Harlem Detectives novels — but are noticeably less violent. When the FBI, suspecting hate crimes, gets involved, Morgan and Davis are joined by hard-nosed special agent Herberta Hind, a Black woman whose parents were once considered "individuals of interest" by her current employer.

And then the gruesome murders of white men spread beyond Mississippi. This attempt on the part of Everett to give all victims of lynching in America their due, rather than restrict himself to a single historical (or fictionalized) example thereof, ends up becoming the novel's main shortcoming. Indeed, "The Trees" grows more and more diffuse as the story progresses.

Moreover, the zombielike avengers' practice of meting out punishment to innocent descendants of those who perpetrated racist atrocities is logically problematic and morally objectionable.

Yet if we interpret "The Trees" as a cautionary tale, the question of perceived inherited guilt diminishes in contentiousness. Perhaps Everett is issuing a warning to his readers-cum-compatriots: Seize the opportunity afforded by this historic moment of racial reckoning to look unflinchingly at one of the great scourges of the American experiment.

And pay a modest price for it. After all, better a toppled Confederate statue or two now than a violent social explosion, replete with death and destruction, later.

———

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta.

0
0
0
0
0

Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Elizabeth Waterman was desperate. In setting out to photograph exotic dancers for "Moneygame," her book depicting strippers from a respectful, humanizing and refreshingly female perspective, the fine art photographer never anticipated how many clubs, dancers and publishers would say no. So she started bringing doughnuts for the bouncers; she won over dancers by helping them gather dollar bills ...

A love story to Galloway and its cattle — a quixotic tale of determination and wonder. "Galloway: Life in a Vanishing Landscape" by Patrick Laurie; Counterpoint (272 pages, $16.95) ——— "Galloway: Life in a Vanishing Landscape" is Patrick Laurie's elegy to Galloway, his birthplace, a rugged, forgotten region on the southwest coast of Scotland. For centuries it was known for Galloway cattle, a ...

"These Precious Days: Essays" by Ann Patchett; Harper (320 pages, $26.99) ——— Ann Patchett’s splendid new essay collection, "These Precious Days," overflows with life — the joys of friendship, the bonds of family, the delights of bookstores and dogs, the mysteries (even to her) of writing. It’s warm and funny and smart and full of unexpected insights. What more could you ask from a book that ...

I’ve been reading the diaries of teenagers. Or rather, not diaries, but autobiographies, most of which were written anonymously, scribbling into notebooks that had been locked away for decades. Some of these stories were long, some were short, some exuberant and some anxious. Of the six recounted in “When I Grow Up” (Bloomsbury, $28), most of their authors died soon after writing. They were ...

November is a lovely month for reading, and for thinking about what books to buy as holiday gifts. (You may have heard: Order early this year.) Here are six fresh-minted options in paperback, to suit a variety of tastes. "Leave the World Behind" by Rumaan Alam (HarperCollins, $16.99). A bestseller and National Book Award finalist, Alam's novel throws two families — strangers to each other — ...

A prize-winning historian broadens and enriches our understanding of the American Revolution. "Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution" by Woody Holton; Simon & Schuster (800 pages, $37.50) ——— When The 1619 Project first appeared in the New York Times Magazine, it came under fire for journalistic whack-a-mole; contributors argued that the primary cause of the American ...

In the 2020 book "Molly, Mushrooms & Mayhem: Stories from Inside the Music Festival Medical Tent," Jim Bollenbacher recounts the first time he witnessed the effects of psychedelic mushrooms. He was working as a paramedic at an electronic dance music festival when he was called by security to check on a young man crawling on the floor, picking imaginary things off the ground and out of the air. ...

Jason Mott won the fiction prize for his novel “Hell of a Book” at the 2021 virtual National Book Awards Wednesday night, hosted inside the offices of Penguin Random House. “Hell of a Book” opens as the story of a Black author touring the country to promote his novel, but it soon broadens to take on themes of love, family and what it means to be Black in America. Tiya Miles was awarded the ...

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Mike Katz and Crispin Kott want to take you on a trip through Bay Area music history. If you’re game, all you have to do is pick up a copy of “Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area,” their cool new book detailing where Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Tupac Shakur and other music stars lived, walked and worked in the region. It also covers a number of ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News