If Sweet Bean Paste is one of the most beautiful books I have read this year, then The Trees is one of the most surprising.
You know what it’s like. You’re in Waterstones bookshop, you have one ‘buy-one-get-one-half-price’ book in your hand and you are struggling to decide on the second book. A customer assistant wanders over, suggests a couple of titles that you’ve already read and then points to this and says he’s pretty sure you will find it interesting. He was absolutely correct.
Having no prior knowledge of Percival Everett (I am ashamed to say), and reading an excerpt of a review from the Daily Telegraph which said: “Satire in the great tradition of Swift by way of South Park,” I had no idea what to expect from this book, other than the fact it was a murder mystery – because it said so on the back.
Set in Money, Mississippi, which, I have discovered, is a real place, this book opens with the brutal murder of a white guy called Junior Junior Milam (son of a man called Junior Millam whose name is never shortened). He is killed in the kitchen of his house. He’s discovered in the company of an equally dead, unidentified black man who just happens to be holding Junior Junior’s severed genitalia in the palm of one hand. Both are transported to the morgue and two black detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are despatched to Money to help the local Sheriff catch the perpetrators.
Then a second murder is committed. Wheat Bryant, cousin of Junior Junior, is found dead in the bathroom of his home. Sitting in the bathtub is an unidentified black man, holding Wheat’s hacked off genitals in his hands. The additional problem being that it’s the same dead black guy that was sitting in Junior Junior’s kitchen and had been taken to the morgue.
On top of that, the reappearing dead black guy bears a resemblance to Emmett Till, a young black man lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 for flirting with a white woman.
And this is where fiction begins to merge with fact.
Emmett Till really was lynched in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, for flirting with a white woman. He was beaten and mutilated before being shot in the head and dropped into the Tallahatchie River. The killers were caught and tried before an all-white jury. They were acquitted… then publicly admitted their crimes.
Back to our novel and more and more murders are being committed. Each time someone dies, an unidentified dead black guy is found with them. The residents of Money are becoming convinced that they are the ghosts of murder victims from the area, returning from the grave to kill those who had something to do with their own deaths. Granny Carolyn, for example, grandmother of Junior Junior and Wheat is the woman who, as a young girl, lied that Emmett Till had made a move on her and got him killed.
Our two agents from the MBI befriend a waitress at a local diner and she introduces them to Mama Z, who is 105 and has meticulously researched and documented every lynching case reported in the US. A young professor is invited to Mama Z’s to look at all the evidence she has collected and Chapter 64 is 11 pages of names the young prof is studiously copying out into a notebook.
It seems a little pointless and unnecessary to have 11 pages of names… until you realise that these are real names of real African American or Latino men and sometimes women who really were lynched. The list starts will Bill Gilmer, shot in Shelby, Tennessee in 1879 and ends with Maurice Granton, shot in the back by police in Chicago in 2018.
This book is a fast-paced page turner. Sharp language, hilarious and terrible at the same time. It is littered with character names like Hot Mama Yeller (even her kids call her that), the Reverend Doctor Fondell who is the medical examiner, and his wife Flance Fondell, Macdonald Macdonald, Pinch Wheyface and an 85-year-old FBI agent from Texas called Hickory Split.
Very near the end of this 330-page book, Chapter 106 is an absolute corker.
The murders have escalated, and are now also involving dead Latino and Chinese bodies at the scene.
The President of the United States is calling for action. Our unnamed POTUS says this: “Five hundred years ago, my people tell me, and they’re good people, they know a lot, and they like me because I know a lot, they tell me back then, the folks from Europe rescued the Africans from each other. As I understand it, African kings were selling their own children to other kings, and we sent our navy, the best navy in the world, to save them.”
I mean, it’s outrageous, the whole POTUS speech makes you laugh and horrifies you at the same time because it could quite easily be true and you’ve probably heard vaguely similar speeches from someone before!
This book beats you around the head and tries to make you understand. Using brilliant satire, it wants you to know truth that has been going on for centuries and is still happening now.
It’s so clever, it’s hilarious, it’s terrifying, it’s unlike anything I’ve read before, but subtle, it definitely ain’t.