Talking to the Past in Percival Everett’s The Trees
Sep 06 ● BY Sam Downs
Following last year’s critically acclaimed Telephone, Percival Everett’s The Trees weaves tropes of pulp-cop noir with trademark acuity and genre-bending inventiveness to deliver a swift, startlingly expansive take on the legacy of lynching in the American South.
Set in present-day Money, Mississippi, the site of Black 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murder for allegedly flirting with the white Carolyn Bryant outside her family’s grocery store some sixty-six years ago, the novel opens on the serial pruning of the incestuously tangled family tree of Till’s true-life murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. “Junior” Milam. This includes Granny C, a fictionalized Carolyn Bryant herself. Found at the site of each crime is the mangled body of a Black man bearing stark resemblance to Till. Afterward, the body disappears from police watch inexplicably, only to show up again at the next scene.
Narrated largely in spare Everettonian plain-speak and streams of snappy dialogue fittingly reminiscent of V. Higgins and Hammett, The Trees opens as a coldhearted thriller offset by comedy at the expense of a stereotypically time-stuck, “Sahara of the Bozart” American South. Overt racism prevails. Wheat Bryant blows his only job driving a truck for Piggly Wiggly when he falls asleep at the wheel and veers off the Tallahatchie Bridge. His wife Charlene spends her time trading risqué communiques via CB radio under the handle Hot Mama Yeller. At the “Dinah” diner, white-passing Gertrude goes by Dixie to improve tips and avoid racist ire:
“And what will you have?” [Getrude asked.]
“How is the chili?” Jim asked.
“Do you like chili?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then you will hate the chili here. Catfish or burger?”
“Cheeseburger,” Jim said.
“Do you like cheese?” Gertrude asked.
But as city-slicker MBI (that’s Mississippi Bureau of Investigation) detectives Ed and Jim inquire into the probably retributive, perhaps supernatural string of murders while enduring frank racism and unadulterated indolence, the novel shapeshifts into something closer to silver screen genre-benders like Get Out or Django Unchained, or maybe Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown crossed with something Elmore Leonard. (Suffice it to say Everett’s insistence that “uncategorizable is still a category” provides as apt an epigraph for The Trees as it does his other 30-odd books.).
At the heart of The Trees is an elegant sleight of hand. Appearing at first dedicated to the tropes implied by its thriller billing and familiar caricature of the white rural south, the novel swiftly departs from the constraints of genre to suggest that Everett’s portrayal of the rural White South is less exaggerated than it initially seems. In short order, the ostensibly comically drawn Reverend Doctor Fondle and Deputy Delroy Digby reveal themselves to be both ignoramuses and genuine, everyday perpetrators of racial violence. The hapless remains of the local branch of the Klan (“We don’t do nothin’ now” one man complained, “I don’t even know where my hood is. I don’t even own a rope.”) is nonetheless reinvigorated when white bodies start piling up. Even the Dinah diner’s seats are “vinyl…that avocado green from the sixties, cracked and repaired with tape that almost matched the color,” and on the walls hang “weirdly colorized photographs” of — who else but — Elvis and Billy Graham. It sinks in quickly that the residents of Money don’t need any authorial assistance in presenting themselves as the kind of caricatures populating conventional narratives. In what came, for this reader, as a rush of recognition not unlike spotting an animal hidden in plain sight, the seemingly exaggerated gestures of genre reveal themselves to be less a part of the lens mechanics of The Trees as features of the environment being photographed. White Money, in other words, is a cliche of its own making.
But White Money doesn’t recognize this, and remains siloed inside the stereotype of its own pernicious ignorance as consequence. The town is named, Everett writes, in “the persistent tradition of irony…with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becom[ing] slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going anywhere.” Days pass in Money “the same as yesterday…the same as tomorrow will be.”
The repercussions of such violent stagnation are as apparent in real life Money as in Everett’s version. Leflore County, which indeed hosted more lynchings than any other in Mississippi between 1880 and 1950, is today home to some of the nation’s highest rates of child poverty and food insecurity. In 2015, the Washington Post wrote that “Bryant’s Grocery is derelict and forgotten, much like the town of Money.” Then and since, multiple attempts have been made to purchase and preserve the store for the purposes of maintaining it as a historical monument—each subsequently thwarted by the descendants of Ray Tribble, a juror in the infamous 1955 trial that let Till’s murderers go free. When interviewed in the Clarion Ledger in 2018, Sherron Wright—a relative of Moses Wright, whose daring testimony identified Bryant and Milam as Till’s kidnappers at the trial—said of the Tribbles: “They just want history to die…They just want history erased.”
Of course, as was the case in 1955, Money’s troubles are America’s troubles, and whether to reckon with historical erasure on a grand scale remains choice fuel for some of our most fervent social debates. Ludicrous outrage persists over whether to remove monuments to slavery’s defenders under the—all too revealing—auspices that these characters are, must be, central to the story the United States tells about itself. When the New York Times Magazine published the 1619 Project in August 2019 for the express purpose of “reframing the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” it was met with a reflexive incredulousness from white people across the ideological spectrum, no doubt illustrative of a widespread defensiveness to challenges to the preferred edition of The Great American Autobiography (even and especially when those challenges themselves lean on the historical record). In protest of the endemic murders of Black men by police, a key strategy of Black Lives Matter activists has been to confront their opponents with the names of the victims—correcting the record as a radical act.
It surpasses euphemism to say that whether the United States will ever suitably reckon with its history of racism remains to be seen, but in Everett’s version, parasitic narratives occupy their hosts until the end. Consider the folktale Granny C repeats as the killings close in on her:
“You know that old story about the vulture? Man walks into town and sees a vulture land on a statue not five feet from him. The vulture looks right at him. He eats him some lunch and comes out and the bird is gone. He leaves town and his car breaks down on the road. He looks up and there’s that turkey buzzard, starin’ right at him. He says, ‘How come you followed me to town and now here you is?’
The vulture looks him up and down and says, ‘I didn’t follow you, I just happened to be in town. I was on my way to this spot to wait for you.’
‘I’m that man, don’t you see?’
At first, Granny C’s “old story” seems a compelling analogy for the novel. History catches up; one cannot outrun one’s past. But then, suddenly, you remember you’re listening to the queen of vultures—one of the very predators who laid in wait for Emmett Till to take summer vacation in August of 1955—and recognize it as little more than a last-gasp attempt to reiterate the very false narrative of white female victimhood used to rationalize Till’s murder. But while The Trees toys with trope to subvert expectation, Granny C’s story purports to be the moral, pathos-laden stuff of folklore. In the end, it’s little more than an analogy without an analogue, a tale with no discernible roots in truth.
When she appears partway through the narrative, root-doctor and lynching historian Mama Z remarks, “If you want to know a place, talk to its past.” Everett is talking with the past in The Trees, but he’s also talking to the present, about the future. To read the book is to be in rare conversation with all three.