Percival Everett’s serious and deadly comedy

Percival Everett has one of the best faces of poker in contemporary American literature. Author of twenty-two novels, he excels in the flawless execution of extraordinary vanities. “If I can have you believe it, then this is a fair game,” he once said of his books, which range from elliptical thriller to heartbreaking farce; their narrators include a vengeful love novelist (“The Water Cure”), a hyper-literate baby (“Glyph”) and a resurrected suicidal English teacher (“American Desert”). Sixty-four-year-old Everett is so constantly surprised that his agent once begged him to try to repeat himself – advice he carefully ignored. “I’ve been called a Southern writer, Western writer, Experimental writer, Mystery writer, and I find it all a bit silly,” he said earlier this year. “I write fiction.”

Beneath the ever-changing surface of his work lies an obsession with the instability of meaning and unpredictable changes of identity. In his short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”, from 1996, a black guitarist playing in a joint near the University of South Carolina is invited by a group of white brothers of the fraternity to sing “Dixie”. He obliges with such an authentic interpretation that the secessionist anthem becomes his own, shaming pranksters and eliciting a standing ovation. He later buys a used truck with a Confederate flag sticker on it, setting off a trend that turns the hate symbol into an emblem of black pride. The story ends with the removal of the flag from the state capital: “There was no ceremony, no notice. One day it was not there. Look away, look away, look away . . . “

Such a commitment to the bit is exemplary of Everett’s fiction. Yet nothing he wrote could be sufficient preparation for his latest book, “The Trees” (Graywolf), a murder mystery set in the town of Money, Mississippi. The novel begins, rather stealthily, as a biting hillbilly comedy, Flannery O’Connor transposed to the QAnon era. We are introduced to Wheat Bryant, a former truck driver who lost his job in a viral drunk driving incident; his unfaithful wife, Charlene; his cousin Junior Junior Milam; and her mother, Granny C, who rides a motorized shopping cart while the family bickers over pigs. The old woman appears to be having a stroke, but is actually thinking about “something I wish I hadn’t done.” About the lie I told all these people years ago about this nigger ”:

“Oh Lawd,” Charlene said. “We’re still on that.”
“I wronged that little pickaninny. As it says in the good book, what goes around comes around.
“What a good book is this? Charlene asked. “Firearms and ammunition? “

It turns out that Granny C is a fictional Carolyn Bryant Donham, whose accusation that Emmett Till hissed and grabbed her, at Money’s country store where she worked, was behind the most lynching. notorious twentieth century. On August 28, 1955, Donham’s husband Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law JW Milam kidnapped, tortured and killed the fourteen-year-old boy for violating the color line. The case was convicted around the world but ended with the acquittal of Bryant and Milam by an all-white jury. (They later confessed to a reporter in exchange for three thousand dollars.) Donham, alleged by some witnesses to have participated in the kidnapping, continued to live in peaceful anonymity until 2017, when, in an interview with historian Timothy Tyson, she admitted to making up the details of her meeting with Till. The octogenarian “felt tender sadness” over Till’s plight but offered no apologies. His longevity renewed outrage over the half-century-old crime: Till died at fourteen; her accuser lived to finish her memoirs, which should be made public in 2036.

“The Trees” is not very interested in anyone’s tender grief. In the first chapters, Wheat and Junior Junior – the invented sons of Till’s killers – are found castrated and with barbed wire around their necks. Next to each white victim is a dead black man in a suit, disfigured as Till was and clutching the white man’s severed testicles like a trophy. Later, Granny C is found dead of shock next to an identical corpse. Similar killings occur elsewhere in the region, and each time a spectral body appears, sparking terrified rumors of an “undead black man”. The killings spread across the country; in several western states, the endangered corpse appears to be that of an Asian man. Is it the work of a serial killer? A cadre of vigilante assassins? A swarm of vengeful ghosts?

Into this maelstrom Everett throws three black detectives: Ed Morgan, a gentle giant with a young family; Jim Davis, a sarcastic bachelor; and Herberta Hind, a misanthropic professional who joined the FBI to upset her radical parents. (Jim and Ed work for the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, often to their embarrassment: “This is crazy shit to scream. MBI! Fucking ridiculous. Received with fear and prejudice by the town’s white citizens, the trio clearly feel ambivalent about the case, which they initially treat as a black joke. “Maybe he’s some kind of black ninja,” Jim said. “Jamal Lee swinging lengths of barbed wire in Money, Mississippi.”

Detectives focus on what appears to be a conspiracy involving a soul-food restaurant (with a secret dojo) and a century-old root doctor, Mama Z, who keeps records of every lynching in America. The stage is set for an ex machina Black-cop at the “In the Heat of the Night”, “BlacKkKlansman” or the municipal elections of 2021 in New York. But detectives quickly find themselves in the wrong kind of justice. What begins as a macabre shipment from the unreconstructed South culminates in a more disturbing and perhaps supernatural wave of vengeance, as the murders take on the dimensions of an Old Testament plague:

Some called it a crowd. An on-site reporter used the word horde. A pastor at an AME church in Jefferson County, Mississippi, called him congregation . . . and like a tornado it would destroy a life and leave the next one unharmed. It made noise. A moan that fills the air. To augment, It said, To augment. He left cities torn apart. The families cried. Families rated their stories. It was time. To augment. It was a cloud. It was a front, a front of dead air.

The unresolved legacy of lynching may seem like a surprising choice of theme for the cool, analytical, and decidedly idiosyncratic Percival Everett. Raised in a family of doctors and dentists in Columbia, South Carolina, he studied Philosophy of Language in college, going from dissecting an invented dialogue to full-fledged fiction in an organic way. He wrote his first novel, “Suder” (1983) – the story of a baseball player’s mad odyssey after a humiliating crisis – while he was a master’s student in creative writing at Brown, where he met the great literary trickster Robert Coover. Everett has also established himself as a laconic and astute postmodern fiction writer, drawing on influences such as Lewis Carroll, Chester Himes, Zora Neale Hurston and, most importantly, Laurence Sterne, whose “Tristram Shandy” remains a role model for his. playful restraint. job.

A character named Percival Everett makes opaque cameos in several of his novels but offers little to the life of his creator. Avoiding publicity – he told audiences on his book tour, for his twelfth novel, “Erasure” (2001), that he was only there because he needed money for a new one. roof – Everett likes to downplay his literary vocation. He regularly describes fiction as a side activity such as fly fishing, woodcarving, herding and training animals, especially horses, to which he credits learning to write. Everett himself teaches English at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Danzy Senna, novelist and USC faculty member. Yet he hesitates to admit that he has something to teach. He talks about writing fiction as a Zen unlearning process, with each novel leaving him more aware of his ignorance than the last. As he once said, “My goal is to know nothing, and my friends tell me I’m on the right track.

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