This book is a detective story. It’s also a ghost story, a slow-burn thriller, a supernatural horror story, a history of racial violence, and everything in between. No category adequately describes The Trees. Percival Everett seems to have purposefully written it that way. Now that intersectionality is the name of the literary game, his latest book lives not within one genre but at the junction where genres crash into one another, a pile-up so fiery and explosive that it never fails to fascinate. This should be read as a supreme compliment; no book in recent memory contains such magnificently controlled chaos.
Whatever it is, the book takes place in a clearly discernible, real-life area: Money, Mississippi. This Southern backwater was named “in that persistent Southern tradition of irony.” That is, there isn’t much money to be found there. It’s a poor area, strictly segregated, and bereft of any hope for the future. “The name becomes slightly sad,” Everett writes in his characteristically dry prose, “a marker of self-ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.” Everett never shies away from a joke, despite—or perhaps because of—his morbid subject matter. “It was a long-running joke in Money, Mississippi,” he jests, “that the way to discover who belonged to the Klan was to wait at Russell’s Dry Cleaning and Laundry.” A dark book, but not without humor.
What gets the story rolling is this: Wheat Bryant, a white man, shows up dead in his bathroom. Not just dead but really dead. “A long length of rusty barbed wire was wrapped several times around his neck,” Everett writes. His arm was bent behind his back “at an impossible angle.” An eye was “gouged out or carved out and lay next to his thigh, looking up at him.”
Another man, equally maimed, lies dead next to him. He looks eerily like Emmett Till.
Wheat’s mother, Granny C, was the woman who told a group of White Southerners that Till catcalled her, a lie that cost him his life.
See what Everett is up to?
As local officials puzzle over the murder, the second corpse seems to vanish into humid Southern air. They lock the body away at night, and next morning it’s gone. Detectives Jim Davis and Ed Morgan are sent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to solve the seemingly supernatural murder. The two chalk up the disappearance to the hapless, hick “peckerwoods,” who treat the outsiders with a combination of suspicion, disgust, and hate. It doesn’t help matters that Jim and Ed are two Black men in what might be, in Everett’s telling, the most racist town in the country. The two became detectives “So that Whitey wouldn’t be the only one in the room with a gun.” Their sense of humor doesn’t go over well in Money.
The Trees includes a wild, wide-ranging cast of characters. The frustrated Sheriff Red Jetty fruitlessly searches for clues while monitoring his clueless deputies. Gertrude, working under a pseudonym in a local diner, is the Virgil to the detective’s Dante in their trip through Money. Mama Z, Gertrude’s great-grandmother, shows the detectives the dark underside of the town’s history as a diligent historian of lynching. The hard-nosed Special Agent Herberta Hind is sent by the FBI to assist the baffled detectives but winds up just as confused as them. This gives you only a taste of Everett’s scope. These are all main characters. Secondary characters are as numerous as they are colorful.
The book snowballs slowly, gathering momentum as the detectives’ case progresses and regresses, as the investigators get ever more desperate for leads, and as the violence spreads nationwide. White people start turning up dead with the same body beside them. Meanwhile, racial tensions reach a fever pitch. Local members of the Ku Klux Klan in Money start preparing for a race war. Black characters begin talking ominously about “a little retributive justice.” To Jim and Ed, it’s an ever-worsening shitshow.
Let’s just say there’s a lot of blood.
“Death is never a stranger,” Mama Z explains. “That’s why we fear it.” She shows the detectives her archives when they figure learning about the local history becomes the closest thing they have to a lead. Certainly, death is no stranger to Money, Mississippi, where strange fruit grew abundant. Of course, death is never a stranger anywhere in this country. The soil is laden with the blood of massacres and genocide. Everett appears to have dipped his pen in this blood to write The Trees.
The book reads like an open wound. A full chapter contains nothing but the names of lynching’s victims. Damon Thruff, a young professor of Ethnic Studies, travels to Money on the invitation of Gertrude to scour great-grandmother’s copious records. He is the motor of the book, along with Mama Z, who volunteers her files. Seeing them, he is compelled to write down in pencil every name he encounters. He explains to Mama Z:
“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’s face. “Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on, child,” the old woman said.
Thruff occupies a position not dissimilar to Everett’s. Both of their work excavates America’s racial trauma hoping only to expose the wound, not dress it. But the violence of the book, the violence of lynching, surpasses any attempt to describe it. This explains why Everett employs so many genres to convey the horror of lynching’s decades-long reign of terror. A detective novel, a ghost story, a tale of body horror, or any concatenation of genres must tremble before the barbarousness of American racial violence. He must operate within and between these genres to keep the violence at sufficient remove to open space for his use of the god-like third person omniscient. Jim and Ed erect a similar barrier between themselves and their work. Though they may secretly sympathize with the assassin, they continue investigating because it is their duty. Perhaps Thruff’s responsibility, and by extension Everett’s, is to keep the case permanently open.
Really, the book’s subject is America’s inability to reckon with the violence on which it was founded. Whether that’s slavery and Jim Crow laws, the genocide of indigenous peoples, or the exploitation of immigrants, the barbarity contradicts its founding values, so any confrontation with the past must explode its self-conception. Even the seasoned detectives see violence that beggars belief. The detectives track the disappearing corpse to a cadaver company in Chicago where Jim “realized he was seeing two men playing soccer with a head.” Baffling violence is found in the present just as much as in the past.
In a New York Times interview, Everett said in characteristically stoic words that his next book was “about lynching.” Although the emphasis appears to rest on the word “lynching,” maybe it lies on the word “about.” About as in around, near, almost but not really. How could a confrontation with the book’s violence be anything but indirect? It would be impossible to deliver a head-on encounter without shocking the reader, and the country, into disbelief. One character dies at the mere sight of Till’s corpse.
But Everett doesn’t concern himself with what’s possible and what’s not. Don’t expect all the loose ends of the story to be tied up. This isn’t a detective story, after all. Or a ghost story. Or a tale of body horror. It’s none of these and all of these, the intersection of genres and the space they fail to cover. The book relays an end to the country as apocalyptic as its beginning. What does that look like? Read the book, or look around.