The Unlikely Heroes of Percival Everett

Novelist Nadifa Mohamed considers the treatment of race, order, and reality in Percival Everett’s novels The Trees, Erasure, Dr. No, and Telephone, the May California Book Club selection.

percival everett
Dustin Snipes

Sometimes violence echoes across time, simply shifting its mark. The memorial to 14-year-old Emmett Till beside the Tallahatchie River, where his body was pulled out of the water, has become a proxy Black body, metaphorically “lynched” and replaced three times since the sign was put up in 2008. The newest memorial is intended to be indestructible. It is made of 500 pounds of steel and covered in bulletproof acrylic. The other memorials to Till in Mississippi, which trace the last movements of the hazel-eyed Chicagoan who was tortured and killed for purportedly whistling at a white woman (a historian determined he didn’t), have been attacked with acid, shot, defaced, stolen, and thrown into the Tallahatchie. Almost 70 years after his brutal murder, symbols of Till continue to be attacked and destroyed. It is only fair for a writer to imagine what it would mean if Till could finally fight back.

Novelist Percival Everett does that difficult imaginative work in The Trees. In the novel, a disfigured Black corpse is found at the scene of the murders of white men, at first in Money, Mississippi; then across the state; and then all over the United States. At each site of the killings, the murdered men have been castrated, and their testicles rest in the hands of a dead Black man. In blaxploitation style, bodies drop here, there, and everywhere, and “crackers” and “peckerwoods” bear the brunt of the violence, often doing or saying just enough to make it feel pretty justified. The heroes of blaxploitation films, including Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, are outlaws, working toward a stereotype or perhaps ideal of indomitable Black masculinity. If Till had lived, he would have been the same age as these swaggering men of the Black Power age, and to the young Everett, maybe they presented a challenging model for a teenage nerd like him. They left a negative imprint in his work, an absence where they should be. There is no Shaft or Sweetback who swaggers into the frame in The Trees to give any style or meaning to the killings. Instead, the bystanders and reader are left to cobble together some sense of what is happening and why. History and its lens moved on from Money after an all-white, all-male jury acquitted J.W Milam and Roy Bryant of the kidnapping and murder of Till in 1955, but The Trees asks what remains on a psychic or even karmic plane. Is there a chance at revenge, if not redress?

Fiction allows for unlikely heroes. The writer alone at his or her desk can, omitting any claim to athletic prowess or physical courage, pursue, confront, and even kill those who have otherwise escaped justice. The nerdy avenger is a recurring theme of Everett’s work: in Telephone, paleobiologist Zach Wells abandons the family home and his dying daughter to rescue a group of kidnapped women in New Mexico; in Erasure, failed novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison writes the worst novel he can think of, a pastiche of Black ghetto life first titled Ma Pafology and then simply Fuck, to punish further the publishers, producers, and celebrities falling over themselves to applaud it; and in his most recent novel, Dr. No, two nerds join forces to break into Fort Knox and steal a shoebox containing nothing, the same nothing that the United States has given to its Black citizens. Using an unrelentingly experimental, puckish, and surreal approach, Everett has hunted big game—human trafficking, lynching, racism, the crimes of the past—and made doing so seem easy and light.

The Trees is in some ways a mirror to my novel The Fortune Men. Both deal with acts of violence against young Black men in the 1950s, although on different sides of the Atlantic. The Fortune Men was my third novel; The Trees is Everett’s 22nd. I was born long after my protagonist, Mahmood Mattan, was put to death by the British state in what his Welsh wife, Laura, called a judicial lynching, while Everett was born only one year after Till was murdered in Mississippi. There is something unusual about the public afterlives of both Mattan and Till. Mattan’s conviction would be the first historic miscarriage of justice overturned in a British court, while Till became one of the most recognizable symbols of the civil rights movement, but little is known of either beyond the harm done to them. When I read it, The Trees startled me and forced me to question my own literary choices. Writing from a vantage that was further away, I had wanted to know Mattan as intimately as possible and used archival research as well as my own interviews to build a picture of this Somali sailor who died far from home for a murder he didn’t commit. If there is such a thing as historical “truth,” I wanted to get as close to it as possible in my fiction. Everett resists the events of 1955 and Till’s personal narrative without evading the emotional power of what happened and his own response to it. The seemingly easy way that Everett discards the “real” history fascinates me and makes me wonder what we mean when we say a novel is “about” something. Is The Trees about Till or not? Is it history, farce, or a stone-cold revenge fantasy? Does it matter?

The most alluring character in the novel is Mama Z, who is over a hundred years old and whose own father was lynched before she was born. She is collating files on all of those lynched in the United States, and it is in her home that the suspects in the novel gather. The fine line drawn between Mama Z’s paper activism and how and why she might be involved in these current murders is one of the few through lines in an otherwise chaotic and discontinuous narrative. Everett researched the history of lynching intensively while working on the novel, and in one chapter, the longest of the text, he simply states the names of men, women, and children lynched in America, including Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014. The list ends portentously just before we reach George Floyd. In an interview with the Booker Prize, Everett said that the novel took him “63 years to write,” and it grew out of his decades of life experience as an American. Much explication is left out of The Trees, but the bodies that fall like ripe fruit throughout the pages say enough. The Black experience—not just in the United States but internationally—can feel as if we are waiting for the next thump to the ground, the next name and hashtag. What joins Mama Z, Everett, and myself is a desire to say their names, whether one year has passed since their murder or a hundred. That recordkeeping is the traditional preoccupation of the writer, but can we go one step beyond? Do we have to remain moral in our pursuit of justice? Can we do in our fiction what morality or even the law would prohibit in our everyday lives?

Everett’s work answers yes. Across his many novels, Everett does not allow much to limit his creative scope. Absurd plots and character names. Dead-end narratives. Obscure and irrelevant asides. Thinly constructed protagonists and unknown antagonists. All of the bête noires of contemporary creative-writing workshops appear unabashedly in his writing. Many novelists claim to not have a reader in mind when they write, but in Everett’s case, I believe him. He seems to be pushing the reader away or perhaps goading them on. You don’t read him for a straight novel. You read him for a trip around his weird and wonderful mind.

The Trees is full of an anger that is muted in his other laconic fiction, including Telephone. The narrator describes how “the image of the boy in his open casket awakened the nation to the horror of lynching. At least the White nation. The horror that was lynching was called life by Black America.” Carolyn Bryant, or Granny C, as she is renamed in The Trees, died two weeks ago, and it’s not clear whether she knew that she appeared in this novel. She did not sue for libel, in any case. Maybe she expected her role in Till’s murder to haunt her. The brief introductions to the white characters, who die perfunctory and gory deaths, create the unadulterated impression of a bestial people physically stunted by their hate, with a “thick, froglike neck” here or a “permanent lopsided sneer” there. They live bleakly comical lives bounded by long-held resentments and familial contempt; their emotions are crude and bluntly expressed. “It won’t be hard carrying on without you, so don’t worry none,” Charlene imagines saying to Wheat after his murder. Not there to be sympathized or empathized with, they are picked off in an almost biblical way down the generations. Everett has said that their comical names—Hot Mama Yeller, Reverend Doctor Fondle, Red Jetty, and many more—are a counterpoint to the mockery that African American names have historically faced. In a novel where order and reason are shown to be the domain of the Black characters, the power to name is another way of reframing the old order.

A similar concept is animated in Dr. No when Black billionaire John Sill renames his English butler DeMarcus.

The power to name, rename, and memorialize a name is one that Everett plays with again and again. In The Trees, academic Damon Thruff and his former classmate Gertrude debate the significance of names, and Damon, after being called there as a kind of writer in residence to the killings in Money, asks Gertrude, “What does murdering people have to do with names?” and she replies, “Nothing and everything.”

Damon, in an earlier chapter, had established a particular relationship to the “names” himself. As he copies the names of the lynching victims from Mama Z’s copious files onto a blank sheet of paper, he explains why: “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?” Damon is an obvious surrogate for Everett in this scene, but I don’t doubt that Everett would be able to “make up this many names.” He can and does. What he refuses to change are the names of the victims and, in Till’s case, the perpetrators, too: Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant, and J.W Milam. Damon puts it beautifully: “When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.” The Trees can be read as a very macho and bloody book but in this moment is tenderness and an almost spiritual act. When we recite those names scattered over 11 pages, we acknowledge that they lived and suffered; we can leave vengeance and justice to Everett and his scythe.

Over a wide range of novels, Everett has kept a place for the academic, a usually melancholic figure who holds his irrelevant knowledge close while the rest of the world slips away. In Telephone, which Everett published in 2020 in three slightly different editions, he gives us professor Zach Wells’s placidly disappointing life, which is transformed when his young daughter, Sarah, is diagnosed with a degenerative disease that causes her to develop dementia. The world of the mind, of knowing things and not forgetting them, however useless they may be—Latin aphorisms, rock formations, chess moves—becomes absurd as Zach waits for the day when Sarah won’t even know him. His escapade to New Mexico to save kidnapped Mexican women communicating with him through notes in bags of clothing bought online is a break in reality—a dream, a psychotic episode, a superman fantasy—but stylistically, tonally, Everett’s fiction places all possible events on the same plane of plausibility, where dreams, reality, and a nation’s racial imaginary meet.

He is drawn, repeatedly, to what dementia reveals about the nature of reality. In Erasure, Thelonious’s elderly mother and her worsening dementia pull him away from his academic life; as he tries to understand and control her behavior, his own actions become wilder. He moves to Washington, D.C.; writes the kind of blockbuster book he despises; and takes on an alter ego named Stagg R Leigh, presumably after 19th-century pimp Stagger Lee. The swirl of memory, learning, fantasy, and emotional imbalance that the otherwise “healthy” characters in Erasure, Telephone, and The Trees experience is an almost necessary break from the irrational, racist world they inhabit. The structure of these novels and their refusal of a linear narrative that permits closure, and therefore, the ability to set the real problems aside, reveal how much readers have been trained on a diet of didactic and hyperrealistic fiction that creates meaning or progress where there has been none. Everett said in an interview that race is a “bogus category that we are forced to adopt because people recognize it.” He recognizes what he must but stretches and deforms it until we see something new.

In some of the worlds Everett creates, dementia serves as a portal to disordered thinking but also to rebellion and the rejection of old, obstructive realities. The nerd strips off the suit, and there is Superman beneath, or a pimp, at least.•

Join us on May 18 at 5 p.m., when Everett will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Telephone. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.

Nadifa Mohamed is the author of Black Mamba Boy, The Orchard of Lost Souls, and the Booker Prize finalist The Fortune Men.
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