Look Back in Anger: Percival Everett’s 'The Trees' provoke ideas of good and evil, crime and justice

The novel opens to set the stage for a crime-detective novel. Told through the voices of eerily hilarious characters, it paints a picture of a town that is marred with poor economic conditions.

Published: 25th September 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th September 2022 01:58 PM   |  A+A-


For representational purposes

Express News Service

'Rise', the word with which Percival Everett’s The Trees begins, prepares the reader for a story that is high on intensity and action that only increases over the next 288 pages. Spread across short, 108 chapters, Everett’s book plays with genres––crime, horror, satire––to create a mosaic of stories that provokes the reader to mull over society’s existing ideas of justice and crime, good and evil, life and death.

Set in a town called Money in Mississippi, the story begins with the death of Junior Junior Milam, the son of J W Milam, who was involved in the lynching of a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, in 1955. Junior’s body is found mutilated–– with a barbed wire around his neck, eyeballs plucked out and his testicles in the hands of an unknown black male’s body beside his, making the town the centre of the nation’s attention.

That is, however, only the beginning of what goes on to be a twisted murder mystery. The unnamed black man’s corpse suddenly disappears from the morgue, and another dead body of a white man, Wheat Bryant, the son of Roy Bryant involved in a similar hate crime as Milam in 1955, is found mutilated in the same condition at his house.

As local (white) policemen, two (black) officers from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI), and one (black) FBI officer get roped in to uncover the truth, Everett spins magic through his wordplay and slapstick comedy, to bring to the fore the question of fairness as it exists in a racial society such as that of the US.

The novel opens to set the stage for a crime-detective novel. Told through the voices of eerily hilarious characters, it paints a picture of a town that is marred with poor economic conditions and strong racial prejudices ––the word ‘nigger’ continues to be used in the 21st century.

Not too far into the narrative, the crime-detective genre blends into horror. Gobsmacked at the appearance of the dead bodies, Ed, one of the two MBI officers asks, “Do you think ghosts are showing up to kill rednecks all of a sudden?” It is later revealed that the unnamed black corpse beside the bodies is that of Emmett Till.

Everett, however, shines the brightest when his satirical tone takes over. For all its focus on the racial divide, the story itself isn’t so black and white, and that’s where the author scores. He doesn’t break down the power equation between the blacks and the whites into binaries. Rather, his characters display a complexity of thought.

Everett makes it clear that the killings of white men are not simply a matter of usurping power from
the whites. The text goes beyond that to suggest that it is also about reinstating the power of the black community that was rendered invisible for centuries.

Mama Z, a 105-year-old woman, who has been maintaining a record of every lynching in the US since 1913, says, “Unknown male is a name… In a way, it’s more of a name than any of the others. A little more than life was taken from them,” echoing the forms of layered invisibility the author seems to be hinting at through his genre-bending story. (This is a six-part series, featuring reviews of books shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize)


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