Confederate Dunces: On Percival Everett’s “The Trees”
By Mary F. CoreyFebruary 3, 2022
The Trees by Percival Everett
— FBI agent Herberta Hind, in The Trees
I LEARNED SATIRE from my childhood bible MAD magazine, mistakenly thinking the title meant looney and understanding only later that it could also mean angry. Percival Everett, one of America’s most important living novelists, is the poet laurate of scathing social satire and the master of a channeled rage tempered only by the precision of his diction. A white heat burns at the center of his work, in which he wrestles surrealistically with the complexities of race and caste.
In the deeply pleasurable Erasure (2001), his central character is a Black academic who says egad, dresses like a preppy, plays squash, and writes dense experimental fiction. When his agent cannot sell his latest novel because it isn’t Black enough, he furiously dashes off a faux “Black” book which he calls My Pafology — a gnarly tome filled with high school dropouts, skank hos, and baby mamas. My Pafology, the book within the book, is a wicked send-up of works that are built to satisfy white readers’ voyeuristic interest in the Black underclass. During production, My Pafology’s title is changed to Fuck, and the book becomes an overnight sensation. In I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), Everett turns his gimlet eye on the way a young wealthy Black person living in the household of Ted Turner confounds preconceptions of what Black means. Or there is his 1999 novel Glyph, in which a baby with an IQ of 475 reminisces about his infancy and opines with snark on Barthes and Derrida. But in his new novel, The Trees, Everett really lets it rip. With a Twainian level of wit and meanness, he has crafted a comic condemnation of whiteness and an argument for retributive justice that could just as easily be called “The Fire This Time.”
Money, Mississippi, is a shithole semi-town “[n]amed in that persistent Southern tradition of irony. […] [T]he name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going anywhere.” The town is dying from its own entropy and a lack of the thing it was named after. This woebegone burg has a welcome sign that rivals Schitt’s Creek’s for its lameness: “Welcome to Money. It’s Worth a Visit.” No, it isn’t — not only because Money was the site of Emmett Till’s lynching, but also because, as one character says: Money is “proof that inbreeding does not lead to extinction.”
In The Trees, an indictment of America’s racial terrorism masquerading as police procedural and slapstick comedy, Everett provides a narrative answer to Langston Hughes’s question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Yes, he says, a dream deferred does explode. It also stinks, sags, festers, etc. This hilarious novel of revenge and reckoning is a narrative correction. Here Everett has consigned his usual restraint to the boneyard, condemning racial violence with broad strokes. While it is a very funny book, what lies at its core is the idea that Black deaths matter.
The Trees trashes white trash and then some, turning on its head the unmodulated ugliness of racist caricatures of Black people. This white-face minstrel show, featuring a parade of lazy, countrified, hapless dumb-clucks, represents the Black gaze on steroids. In fact, Sean Hannity would call the book racist if he ever heard of it. He might also be somewhat flattered, however, by the scene in which his name is spoken by fat Fancel Fondle while she and her husband Cad are watching TV in their sadly mismatched recliners — hers permanently stuck in recline mode. As they switch “back and forth between Fox News and professional wrestling,” Hannity appears on the screen and Fancel remarks: “That Hannity is cute. […] If I could get my hand anywhere near my vajayjay, I’d rub me out just watchin’ him.” Her husband snarls back, “You can’t reach it. So shut up.”
The book opens in one of Money’s “suburbs,” unofficially called Small Change, a sad little tumble of vinyl-sided shanties and shotgun houses inhabited by underclass white folks. Upon the dead grass of Charlene and Wheat Bryant’s backyard, beside a leaking plastic kiddie pool, a family gathering that is “neither festive nor special” is taking place. Wheat likes to say that he is “between jobs,” but as his wife, a veritable Mensa member compared to the rest of the clan, always points out, “the word between usually suggested something at either end, two somethings,” and since Wheat has held only one job in his entire life, “he wasn’t between anything.” Wheat likes to clean his gun while he watches Wheel of Fortune, shouting, “Buy a vowel, you stupid bitch,” at the screen. He also thinks he’s a “feminist” because he chain-smokes Virginia Slims for “bowel regularity.” Granny C Bryant, Wheat’s mom, busies herself feeding the skunks and trolling about the gray lawn in a golf cart emblazoned with “Am’s Clu,” a partial reminder that she had stolen the thing from Sam’s Club down in Greenwood. Granny C always looks a little sad. “And why not? Wheat was her son.”
It seems, though, that Granny C’s tristesse has uglier historical roots. The old woman is haunted by a horror she set in motion 65 years earlier. In fact, all the folks listlessly partying in the Bryant’s sorry excuse for a backyard share a murderous legacy, in addition to their shared love for CB radios, homemade tattoos, and Falstaff beer. In The Trees, they are made to pay for the sins of their fathers. So, while this is just a regular old joyless Bryant family get-together, what they don’t know is that it is judgment day in Money and some of them will soon be toast. Worse than toast because toast doesn’t have balls that can be cut off.
Everett’s cast of white crackers display a degree of idiocy and sloth that borders on epic. They entertain themselves by popping family members’ pimples while snacking on “meat lover’s pizza” and sport neck tattoos that say things like, “Break here in case of emergency.” Dirty children amuse themselves chasing piglets around the yard. This cadre of half-wits can’t even do racism right. The construction of a simple cross for burning appears to be well above their pay grade. “Even from that distance,” the sheriff noticed, “the cross looked sad, not for political or social reasons, but because it was so obviously poorly constructed. The crossbeam was already collapsing, and the flames lost all enthusiasm, lapped at the air around as if exhausted.”
These folks often speak wistfully of a generational Eden when “they used to have cross burnins a lot more and family picnics and softball games and all such.” One doofus recollects the good old times “eatin’ cake next to that glowing cross.” Another bemoans the fact that he doesn’t even own a rope anymore. Their sluggish attempt to hold a KKK meeting in the basement of the town’s defunct general store draws only 10 fat guys who “all shared the same flinty look.”
“Okay, let’s say the oath. […] Together now.”
“I have done passed the Yellow Dog and stand here a member of the Grand Invisible Empire. I vow to protect the God-given rights of the White race from all aliens, be they Black, yellow, red, or Jew. […] Rocka rocka shu ba day! We is the Klan of the USA.”
Then someone shouts out “Peckerwood Power.” Even they know they’re peckerwoods.
Everett holds these bozos over the flames like so many marshmallows, charring them to perfection. Which raises the question: how can a book about the scope and horror of lynching be such a side-splitting page-turner? Perhaps because revenge, even fictional revenge, is particularly sweet when it is so long overdue.
Unlike their more vigorously racist forebears, the enervated poor white folks in The Trees lack the moxie to actually do very bad things. Sure, they use the N-word constantly and are generally seething balls of resentment about “uppity” Blacks. But their indolence cramps their ability to be as dangerous as their ancestors. There are only a few white people in Money who aren’t total shmoos. And in the end, two of these turn out to be Black. Or, as Everett explains: “Even in Money, Mississippi, not all of the White people were the same. […] But enough of them were the same.” So, when bad stuff starts happening to the Bryants in Money and it becomes clear why, I was glad to see them go, testicles and all. Still, it gave me an uneasy feeling when I found myself reacting to the deaths of white crackers the way white crackers probably relate to the death of “some ni- , I mean Afro-American individual.” I think the slyest trick in this literary smart bomb is the way Everett takes us to a place in which we easily discount the right of these racist clowns to life itself. Because they are no-counts — dumb, lazy, and criminally inclined — we laugh and turn the page when they begin to turn up dead. It is entertainment, and we regard their fictional deaths as sport. But isn’t this a little like those white folks who for generations gathered merrily around the castrated carcasses of hanging/burning Black people? This complex reversal is Everett at his finest.
All of the cultural capital in The Trees belongs to its Black protagonists. They are the royals, and the white people are the court jesters. Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, whose delicious Pulp Fiction–level trash-talking is one of book’s many delights, are two highly educated investigators from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation sent to Money to solve the thorny problem of the dead castrated white guy whose body has mysteriously disappeared from the morgue. Then there is Damon Nathan Thruff, who despite his three PhDs and prolific scholarship gets stuck in a one-year appointment at the University of Chicago called the Phillis Wheatley Chair in Remedial Studies because he was denied tenure because of his productivity. Too much productivity! Dr. Thruff shows up in Money at the invitation of his former classmate from Cornell, Gertrude, who works at Dinah’s diner wearing a nametag that says Dixie because, I’m guessing, the owner thought Gertrude was too Shakespearean, i.e., white. Gertrude is most definitely up to something and is only in Money to help her “grandma,” Mama Z, who is the moral center of the book.
Mama Z is not the wise, wizened voodoo priestess in a headwrap she might have been in the hands of a lesser writer. She is a 105-year-old, statuesque, tough-talking dame in business attire. Fueled by her “nightly tea” of bourbon and venom, she has kept a detailed record of every lynching in the country since 1913, the year of her birth and the year in which her own father, Julius Lynch, was murdered by a white mob. “I have chronicled the work of the devil,” she says to Professor Thruff, as the gobsmacked academic surveys Mama Z’s library filled with large file cabinets containing the names of the dead. She chides Thruff about his “scholastic” book on the subject of racial violence, telling him that she found it “very interesting […] because you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage.” Conversely, Everett has “constructed” exactly 307 (and a half) pages on this same subject, each one crackling with fury.
“You should know,” Mama Z says when she is interviewed by Ed and Jim, who suspect she might be behind some of the fatal things that are happening to white folks in Money, “that I consider police shootings to be lynchings. […] Every White person in this county, if they didn’t lynch somebody themselves, then somebody in their family tree did.” When Ed asks her why she has documented these killings, she replies: “Because somebody has to. When I die and this place is made known, I hope it will become a monument to the dead.” In response, Ed and Jim, “who had seen nearly everything […] in the line of duty, fell silent. They stood there and looked at the gray front of the cabinets. […] There were twenty-three of them. The drawers were like those in a morgue.”
When the Black FBI agent Herberta Hind tells Mama Z that she is in Money to investigate any civil rights violations, Mama Z asks:
“Whose civil rights?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I ask because you have to have civil rights in order for them to be violated.” Mama Z let that hang in the air.
A lot has been written about the naming practices of Black Americans, seeing them as a historical response to having endured centuries of unchosen monikers like Sambo and Uncle and boy. Mama Z’s mantra is “if you want to know a place, you talk to its history,” and in The Trees, the names of the dead speak volumes. Professor Thruff takes it upon himself to write down every name in the files in pencil and then erase them to “set them free.” He tells Mama Z: “[T]here are so many unknown males. Those were hard to write down just like the names.” Mama Z replies, “Unknown male is a name. […] In a way it’s more of a name than any of the others. A little more than life was taken from them.” Mama Z’s own name is Adelaide Lynch, as if her birth name had destined her for her historical task.
Everett has a blast naming his white characters. Wheat Bryant (probably named after a cereal) has a brother named Junior Junior because his father’s name was Junior and the Bryants were short on imagination. Charlene Bryant’s kids call her Hot Mama Yeller, her CB handle. Her trucker lover goes by Pete Built. The sheriff’s assistant is Pick L. Dill, the governor of South Carolina is Pinch Wheyface, and there is even a sheriff named Chalk Pellucid. Oh, and there’s a Reverend Doctor Cad Fondle, who is neither. Everett also plays around with the feebly amended language of race. Many a sentence in this book begins with “The ni—, I mean … the deceased Negro gentlemen, darkie, Afro-American individual, colored person.”
The book does sag a little in the middle. There is something about repetitious brutality that dulls the senses. But maybe this is Everett’s intention — to mirror the horrific redundancy of 7,000 lynchings.
The racial history of the United States is nothing if not surreal. Novels and films that approach this history through realism are often not up to the task. Everett’s book, with its masterly fusion of detective fiction and supernatural avenger fantasy, transcends the familiar themes of white cruelty and Black victimhood to explore Black agency through the tropes of both genres. It is furious, political, and historical, but it is also art — an example of the kind of radical imagining that can bridge the gap between reality and fantasy, that can take us beyond historical oppression toward an understanding of Black agency that is more complex than an Afro or a raised fist on a poster. Like Toni Morrison’s body of work, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015), like films such as Get Out (2017), Black Panther (2018), and the original Candyman (1992), like the paintings of Kerry James Marshall or Beyoncé’s album Lemonade (2016), The Trees is an untendentious expression of radical activism that takes us somewhere we could not otherwise reach.
“In all of those files I read,” Damon Thruff tells Mama Z, “not one person had to pay. Not one.” What The Trees miraculously manages to do with its mixture of comedy and historical rage is to deliver a wildly satisfying dream of retributive justice for all the people in Mama Z’s gray file cabinets. Like her library, The Trees is a monument to the dead.
Mary F. Corey is a senior lecturer in American history at UCLA specializing in intellectual history, popular culture, and Black nationalism. She is the author of The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury (Harvard University Press) and is currently working on a book about Black Blackface performance, tentatively titled They Stooped to Conquer. Dr. Corey is a recipient of the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award.
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