Crime and Punishment

Percival Everett’s The Trees is a masterful allegory about America and race.

the trees, percival everett
Graywolf Press

This ain’t the city,” declares a sheriff in Percival Everett’s new novel, The Trees. “Hell, this ain’t even the twenty-first century. It’s barely the twentieth, if you know what I mean.” The sheriff is referring to a place called Money, Mississippi, a tiny hamlet on the Little Tallahatchie River. If you’ve heard of it, you’re probably familiar with its horrible legacy: it’s the town where, in 1955, the Black 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted by two white racists who beat and killed him after he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury, but a year after the trial, protected by double jeopardy, they admitted their guilt in an interview with Look magazine.

In The Trees, present-day Money becomes the site of another horrific murder; it opens with a dim-witted sheriff’s deputy responding to an emergency call. A woman has returned from a swap meet to find her white husband dead: skull bashed in, eye gouged out, barbed wire wrapped around his neck. His scrotum has been torn away and is in the hand of another dead man, this one Black, slight, dressed in a suit.

The deputy “had never seen two people so dead in his entire life,” Everett writes. “And he’d been in a goddamn war.” Not long after the gruesome discovery, the body of the Black man disappears from a drawer in the coroner’s office.

The case catches the interest of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which sends two Black detectives, Ed Morgan and Jim Davis, to investigate. They’ve barely gotten started before another body of a white man is discovered in his home, similarly mutilated, with the corpse of the same Black man lying nearby. The corpse disappears yet again, only to turn up back in that home, in the bedroom of an elderly woman who lives there, kin to the two dead white men, who’s passed away from what appears to be natural causes.

Morgan and Davis are baffled, but things start to add up when they learn that the white men were the sons of Till’s killers, and the woman was Carolyn Bryant, who leveled the accusation that led to the teenager’s death. The investigation only gets more complicated when similar murders start being reported not only in Mississippi but across the United States.

There’s no shortage of novels that deal with America’s shameful legacy of racial violence, but The Trees is unlike any other. Everett draws from a series of genres—literary novel, police procedural, horror—to create a book that’s both unique and difficult to describe. It’s a delicate balancing act that he pulls off masterfully, another brilliant book by one of the most essential authors in American literature.

Much of the novel’s power stems from its structure. The narrative unfolds through dozens of short chapters, with Everett jumping seamlessly among different points of view. It’s a technique that works especially well given Everett’s nods to cinematic conventions—Morgan and Davis’s easy banter brings to mind buddy-cop movies, and the residents’ reactions to the unwanted outsiders are reminiscent of crime movies where local law enforcement officers bristle at out-of-town investigators.

This structure allows Everett to subvert the tropes of films like Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi (there is, of course, a theme here), in which stories of racial violence focus on white people swooping in to save the day. The image of the white savior has shaped—for the worse—the way Americans process the history of race hatred; The Trees upends that narrative.

Indeed, the white characters here are mostly monsters, throwing around the N-word with abandon, barely disguising their contempt for the Black detectives. The town’s coroner leads a Ku Klux Klan chapter, the members of which long to bring back “the ways of fury, fire, and the rope.” Everett’s depiction of them leans toward the burlesque: in one scene, the coroner and his wife watch television, “switching back and forth between Fox News and professional wrestling,” with the woman saying that if she were able to reach her genitals, she’d masturbate to Tucker Carlson.

It’s jarring, but that’s the point, as if Everett is daring us to take offense. Why should we sympathize with people who have spent their lives making others’ worse? Over the past few years, right-wing whites have been the subjects of kid-glove profiles in national newspapers seeking to recast their racism as economic anxiety. Everett offers another perspective; again, it’s a more accurate one.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Trees is how funny it is. It’s hard to find humor in a book that deals with lynching, but Everett manages it, mostly in the dialogue between Morgan and Davis, both of whom talk with a dry, mordant sense of humor. Everett also has fun with names: his white characters go by Pynchonesque handles, such as Cad Fondle, Delroy Digby, Pinch Wheyface, and Hickory Spit.

All of this makes The Trees a masterpiece of satire that overturns the white narrative around race in America. The novel insists that we consider the lack of national outrage about lynching, which still happens today—consider George Floyd, consider Ahmaud Arbery. “Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices,” Everett writes. “Where there are no mass graves, no one notices. American outrage is always for show. It has a shelf life.”

Everett also wants us to think about the lack of consequences for white racism. For every Derek Chauvin who gets sentenced to years in prison, there are many more who never get called to account. In The Trees, they finally do, on a scale commensurate with their crimes, with the crimes of this nation.

“History,” as one character notes, “is a motherfucker.”•

Graywolf Press


Graywolf Press

Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR.
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