You can be fully supportive of a book’s intent, empathetic to its theme, and just not resonate with it. This was my first read of Percival Everett’s work. I had no idea of his style or really any knowledge of his reputation. His name was familar, but had The Trees not been nominated for the Booker I’m not sure I’d ever have found The Trees.
The novel is about racism in the American South, in Money, Mississippi, focused on the lynching of Emmett Till. Acquitted following the trial, just one year later his murderers openly admitted to his brutal slaying. For better or worse, in the United States you can’t be tried twice for the same crime; double jeopardy protects you, no matter if you confess after the fact. After his wife Carolyn accused Till of either speaking salaciously to or touching her (the story was never clear), her husband Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law JW Millam hunted down Emmett Till – a 14-year old child – in Mississippi from Chicago visiting his family. They tortured him, mutilated his body, and shot him in the head, tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Emmett Till’s body, bloated from time spent floating in the river, was brought back to Chicago for visitation and burial. His mother would not have a closed casket. She left it open for the world to see what these men had done to her child. Her baby. A hideous sight, it could not match the ugliness inside the real-life monsters carrying out heinous acts of hatred against Black people.
As a native of Mississippi, I know its egregious history of condoning racism and violence toward Black people. Raised in the North from the time I was a toddler, even as a young child I felt a jolt hearing relatives toss out “the n-word” in casual conversation. I can’t point to the moment I figured out it was a vile slur. I have no memory of not finding it shocking, which must mean no one in my immediate family – my parents and two brothers – used it. I most likely learned it on my own.
Casual racism behind closed doors is particularly insidious, perhaps equally as bad as vicious hate speech because it shows how engrained prejudice is within a culture. No one was trying to shock me. They jokingly called me a Yankee, in its way a mild form of exclusion, but they weren’t putting on a performance. Fed white exceptionalism from an age too young to differentiate right from wrong, it’s as normal to them as any other accepted behavior. How you fix something like this and move forward I do not know, which goes a long way toward explaining why lynching was not declared a hate crime in the United States until March of 2022.
In The Trees, Percival Everett writes a revenge novel. It starts with two White men brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi. Inexplicably, the same Black man is present at both scenes, brutally disfigured and shot in the head, holding the testicles of the men in his hands. Though the bodies are taken to the morgue, the Black man keeps disappearing, then reappearing at the scenes of other murders of the exact same description. Two Black detectives are called in from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to help local law enforcement make sense of what’s happening. Meanwhile, the murders have gone national.
I don’t have to explain the symbolism, having told the basic story of Emmett Till. There’s more to the book, characters moving in and out, other strange happenings. But Percival Everett’s intent is clear.
As a southerner by birth, I feel a measure of discomfort saying I did not find the book completely effective. As a book reviewer with nearly two decades’ experience, I would be disingenous saying anything to the contrary, but this does not mean I find nothing to praise. Percival Everett found a way to tell a revenge story with flashes of humor that keep it from descending into despair. There’s an elegance to his writing, genuinely graceful passages of lyrical language.
I believe the book takes too long getting started, then, once started, keeps too much distance between the reader and the horrors of racism. I understand his intent was not to beat us over the head with a story that’s difficult to hear. This explains the sly humor and absolute ridiculousness of the story – as in impossibility, not dismissing his talent.
As with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, the issues are urgent. They are grievous wrongs that show the absolute worst of humanity. But when you get to the level of the Booker Prize, every detail matters. I know literary taste is subjective, but I have a personal expectation of the winning book. It needs to have not just an important message but a compelling way of relating it that punches me in the chest.
It needs to have it all, then push it a bit further.
The Trees may make the shortlist, but I’m not convinced of it. It has qualities I’ve seen in other American Booker winners. I guess we’ll see.