Dark but witty satire explores racism, vengeance and the horrors of lynching

“The Trees,” by Percival Everett. (Graywolf Press/TNS)

“The Trees” by Percival Everett; Graywolf Press (308 pages, $16)

Trees, when left unmolested, typically enjoy a long life span. Imagine if trees in the United States, particularly in the South, could speak. Many might tell us of something sinister they got roped into — literally — over decades. That something is lynching.

Percival Everett, whose “Telephone” (2020) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has managed to write a fast-paced and witty novel about a somber subject that lends itself to neither treatment. “The Trees” gives us the zombielike return to life, and the search for vengeance, of people who were lynched.

Significantly, despite skewering everyone from rural Southern whites to Donald Trump, “The Trees” is never flippant about those felled by racist violence. “The horror that was lynching was called life by Black America,” we are reminded by the omniscient narrator.

Not all victims of lynching were hanged. Take Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who, on a visit to the town of Money in Mississippi, allegedly whistled at a white woman. As punishment, the woman’s husband and his half-brother tortured Till to death.

That was in 1955 — but perhaps it’s not the end of the story. The two separate killings that kick off “The Trees” take place in contemporary Money. The victims are the sons of Till’s murderers. As a local woman, referring to Till, puts it, “They say he come back to get revenge. I guess he got it.”

“The Trees” is an ensemble piece, but certain characters figure more prominently than others. Ed Morgan and Jim Davis are the two wisecracking (Black) Mississippi Bureau of Investigation detectives dispatched from Hattiesburg to tackle the Money murders case. They recall Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones of the late Chester Himes’ Harlem Detectives novels — but are noticeably less violent. When the FBI, suspecting hate crimes, gets involved, Morgan and Davis are joined by hard-nosed special agent Herberta Hind, a Black woman whose parents were once considered “individuals of interest” by her current employer.

And then the gruesome murders of white men spread beyond Mississippi. This attempt on the part of Everett to give all victims of lynching in America their due, rather than restrict himself to a single historical (or fictionalized) example thereof, ends up becoming the novel’s main shortcoming. Indeed, “The Trees” grows more and more diffuse as the story progresses.

Moreover, the zombielike avengers’ practice of meting out punishment to innocent descendants of those who perpetrated racist atrocities is logically problematic and morally objectionable.

Yet if we interpret “The Trees” as a cautionary tale, the question of perceived inherited guilt diminishes in contentiousness. Perhaps Everett is issuing a warning to his readers-cum-compatriots: Seize the opportunity afforded by this historic moment of racial reckoning to look unflinchingly at one of the great scourges of the American experiment.

And pay a modest price for it. After all, better a toppled Confederate statue or two now than a violent social explosion, replete with death and destruction, later.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta.

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