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No author has been more overlooked than Percival Everett. His catalogue of works often defy classification, and frequently manipulates (or ignores) genre tropes while tackling important racial, political, and cultural issues. Despite being a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Telephone, receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, and an Academy Award, Everett’s audience has often been confined to the classroom for undergrads to analyse. Much like his earlier novels Erasure and I Am Not Sydney Poitier, Everett’s latest novel, The Trees, doesn’t shy away from addressing the current and historical racial complexities of America through a darkly comic and insightful perspective worthy of being a finalist for the 2022 Man Booker Prize.
The narrative begins in modern day Money, Mississippi, a rural town steeped in racial disharmony with a history of lynchings, where a white man has been found brutally murdered and castrated along with the body of a black man whose face is too disfigured to identify. Sheriff Jetty and his local, racist deputies are perplexed and assume the dead, black man is responsible. However, as another murder is executed in similar fashion, the same disfigured black man appears at the scene. This second murder prompts the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to send two sarcastic, black detectives, Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, to aid in the investigation. However, the deceased black body reminiscent of Emmett Till keeps disappearing and reappearing at new murder scenes.
Despite their witty remarks, the two detectives find themselves puzzled as rumours of a “Black Ghost” wreak chaos on the white residents of Money. After another similar murder occurs in Chicago, FBI Special Agent Herberta Hinds is assigned the case and joins Davis and Morgan in solving the riddle of these murders. Despite help from Gertrude, a local waitress, and her great-grandmother Mama Z, murders of white men following the same modus operandi begin to surface all across the country. As the murders pile-up and law enforcement draws closer to solving the case, Everett disrupts the reader’s expectations and, as per his style, forces the reader to come to their own conclusions.
Like a Coen Brothers’ film, the cast of oddly-named, eccentric characters, parody of law enforcement, and guffaw-worthy dialogue makes The Trees a satiric novel that bites deep but with a soothing anaesthetic. At times brutal in its description of the crime scenes and the blatant, racist vitriol these idiotic characters profess, Everett’s novel serves the same function as a stand-up comedian. By using hyperbolic stereotypes of all races, the novel allows the reader to laugh at the forbidden. Everett addresses deep-seeded racism and police violence while the reader chuckles to himself, wondering if he should be laughing at all.
The crime-fiction format works well and moves along quickly. The mystery and motivation of the killings propels the reader toward a conclusion that some may find unfulfilling and riddled with unanswered questions. However, the tension builds as the body count rises and, despite the end, makes a worthy reading experience. If you are an Everett fan, the experience of his writing, creativity, and experimentation is part of the intrigue.
There are some issues with the novel that have nothing to do with the writer or story itself. Around halfway through the book, consistent syntax mishaps, missing articles or helping words, and other types of issues started to become increasingly noticeable to the reader. While this may not affect the overall reading, the frequency can become a distraction.
Regarding the narrative and style, The Trees, despite its comedic dialogue and intriguing mystery, dives so heavily into racial stereotypes, the style and parody begin to grate on the reader. All whites become racist, Republicans. All blacks live in the ghetto. The president’s televised response to the killings is undeniably a parody of Donald Trump. While this approach carries the novel early on, the incessant nature and heavy handedness of these tropes loses its appeal near the end and the emotional impact fails to deliver to its full potential.
The Trees is a brilliant, fast-paced and entertaining novel by one of our most inventive and impactful voices. Despite the grammatical errors and the purely subjective opinions on style, these should have no bearing in experiencing Everett’s new novel (and other works) for yourself.
The Trees, Percival Everett
Graywolf Press, 2021
N.T. McQueen is a writer and professor in Kona, Hawai'i. His books include the forthcoming novel The Blood of Bones (Adelaide Books, 2021) and Between Lions and Lambs (City Hill, 2010). He earned his MA in Fiction from CSU-Sacramento and his writing has been featured in issues of the North American Review, Fiction Southeast, Entropy, The Grief Diaries, Camas: Nature of the West, Stereo Stories, and others. He has done humanitarian work in Cambodia, Haiti and Mexico and teaches writing at several colleges and universities.