Percival Everett’s The Trees is a strange beast. Part police procedural, part black comedy, the novel is both irreverently silly and deadly serious. It begins in the cruelly named one-horse town of Money, Mississippi, where a white man and a black man are found dead. The former has been garrotted and mutilated; his severed testicles are found in the palm of the latter. Shortly afterwards, the black man’s body goes missing and reappears next to the body of a second white victim, clutching another pair of nuts. Two black detectives, Ed Morgan and Jim Davis, are dispatched from the city of Hattiesburg to investigate. No sooner have they established a connection between the two white victims – they were the sons of the men who lynched the black teenager Emmett Till in 1955 – than news comes in of a spate of further, eerily similar murders elsewhere in the United States.
The killings appear to be delayed revenge for historical wrongs, and the genital mutilation of the victims a darkly ironic nod to the psychosexual component of anti-black racism in the Jim Crow era. (Till was tortured and killed because he was alleged to have flirted with the wife of a shopkeeper.) Money is MAGA country, a town of gun-loving hillbillies where our black co-protagonists must tread carefully. The widow of one of the victims threatens Ed: ‘I got every right to be scared of you. I could shoot you if I wanted. Could say you scared me real bad and I had to shoot you. You hear what I’m saying?’ We learn that the local coroner has been in cahoots with the sheriff, helping cover up racist murders. His assistant recalls one instance: ‘He typed suicide on the cause of death line. Just like that! Who shoots himself in the back of the head in a dumpster?’
The investigation brings the detectives into contact with an academic researching the history of racial violence and an elderly activist who has compiled detailed records of almost every reported lynching in US history. As he leafs through the files, the scholar feels overwhelmed:
the crime, the practice, the religion of it, was becoming more pernicious as he realised that the similarity of their deaths had caused these men and women to be at once erased and coalesced like one piece, like one body. They were all number and no number at all, many and one, a symptom, a sign.
This sombre subject is treated with a due sense of solemnity, but pretty much everything else is played for laughs. Here, for example, is a passage roughly midway through the book, coming just after yet another murder victim has been discovered:
‘What’s that in his hand?’ the sheriff called to one of his men.
‘Sheriff, that would be testicles,’ the man said.
‘Testicles. And I suspect that they belong to him.’ He pointed to the dead man in prison clothes. ‘I say that because that guy is missing his.’
A meeting of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter verges on farce. One member waxes nostalgic: ‘they used to have cross burning a lot more and family games and all such … I remember eatin’ cake next to that glowing cross. I loved my mama’s cake.’ Another complains: ‘We don’t do nothin’ now … I don’t even know where my hood is. I don’t even own a rope.’ Everett has lots of fun with names: the coroner is called Cad Fondle; the murder victims include one Junior Junior and one McDonald McDonald; we meet an FBI agent called Herberta, a medical examiner called Helvetica Quip, a sheriff called Chalk Pellucid, a detective called Wesley Snipes (‘no relation and White’) and a dog with no name at all (his owner explains: ‘I don’t like names’).
In Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure, a black author laments the tendency of white liberals in the publishing industry to pigeonhole African-American authors. He bashes out a satirical send-up, entitled My Pafology, chock-full of clichés and mawkish poverty porn about life in the ghetto; it is published pseudonymously and becomes a bestseller as the literary world misses the joke completely. Cliché, once the enemy, is positively embraced in The Trees. A good deal of the novel’s infrastructure is built on stock types: the white residents of Money are a caricature of overweight, rural simpletons; with their genial patter and wisecracking charisma, Jim and Ed could be a double act in pretty much any TV cop show – a point winkingly acknowledged at various points in the dialogue and narration. Everett inhabits the skin of genre fiction with a weary, cynical knowingness: ‘The two men made some talk about being cops and hating being cops and not knowing anything but being cops.’
The novel’s brisk narration and unusual register – an arrestingly perverse blend of playfulness and earnest moral purpose – make for a refreshing antidote to the po-faced didacticism that lets down so many contemporary novels of the politically conscientious sort. It’s a shame, however, that the denouement is not particularly suspenseful; the setup is, in truth, considerably more compelling than the resolution. This would constitute a significant failing in a straight-up noir thriller, but this isn’t strictly – or only – that kind of book: the whodunnit aspect is secondary; The Trees is, despite appearances, implicitly a social novel. By semi-ironically revelling in cliché without providing the payoff of a page-turning climax, is Everett having his cake and eating it? Perhaps, a little bit, but he has nevertheless produced something distinctive, memorable and – in its own weird way – understatedly powerful.