The Trees

I think satire is just about the most difficult kind of book for both writer and reader to get right. The writer has to be clear that they are being satirical, and the reader has to be able to get on board with it. Basically, the reader and the writer have to have similar enough sensibilities that the satire doesn’t become too ridiculous to take seriously or too subtle to be recognized for what it is. For my part, I often have a hard time with satire, even acclaimed satire like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout because it’s too full of gags for me. The point gets lost in the comedy. The Trees, however, worked perfectly for me.

I was introduced to Percival Everett’s books through the Tournament of Books, and I liked both So Much Blue and Telephone. But neither really blew me away. They were standard, solid literary novels, good enough that I’m open to reading more by the author, but not so good to make the author a must-read. The Trees, a satirical crime novel about lynching, takes a much bigger swing than those books, and I am astonished at how successfully it hits the mark.

Set in Money, Mississippi, a town made notorious for the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the book begins with the brutal murder of a white man named Junior Junior and an unidentified Black man. When the Black man’s body disappears, a pair of  investigators, both Black men from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, come to Money to look into it. And then more, similar killings occur.

One of the interesting things Everett does is flip the usual stereotypes, presenting almost all the white characters as redneck hicks and treating the Black characters as complex individuals. If there’s dialect, it comes from white characters. It’s an effective approach in that it subtly affects readers’ mindsets about the characters and which ones we’re meant to care about. I will admit that I can be sensitive about stereotypes of rural southerners, I didn’t mind it here because it was so clearly exaggerated for effect. He’s not trying to give a realistic picture of individual people but to poke fun at the ignorance that fuels racism. It doesn’t feel like punching down.

It becomes clear very quickly that these crimes are connected to Money’s own history and to the history of lynching in America. If you look closely at the book’s cover, you’ll see the names of actual lynching victims. It’s deeper, however, than a simple revenge thriller. The injustice is too deep for simple revenge. It’s a spiritual reckoning. I wish I could say it’s encouraging, but it isn’t. This is a dark book about a dark history. But it’s also at times really funny and it has enough of the bones of a thriller to keep the pages turning almost effortlessly. It’s an extraordinary achievement.

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8 Responses to The Trees

  1. Jeanne says:

    I love satire but can get real pedantic about it real fast, as it’s the subject of my dissertation. Does this author offer any remedy for the wrong he is pointing out? It doesn’t have to be explicit, but for satire to work, there has to be a clear alternative. Less ignorance? Less provincialism and clannishness?

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good question! Multiple solutions are offered, like naming the names, outright revenge, or reforming the system from the inside. Some solutions feel more effective than others in the world of the book, but which ones the book endorses is probably open to debate.

  2. indiefan20 says:

    Sounds interesting, I’ll be adding this to my to-read list. Great review! :)

  3. Ruthiella says:

    Excellent point about the buffoonish white characters and the authors intent. I thought this book was extraordinary as well. I loved So Much Blue and liked Telephone. I have also since read Erasure which is also satire and worth reading. I really want to read his entire backlist some day.

  4. lauratfrey says:

    You make a good case for this book! I loved The Sellout but think I could go for this as well.

  5. Do you think I would prefer this or Telephone? If you had to make a guess? I didn’t enjoy So Much Blue but would like to try something else by this author, and I want to set myself up for success with him if possible!

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