The Best Novel I've Read This Year: "The Trees"
The first guest contribution for The Biblioracle Recommends from Lincoln Michel
One of my goals for 2021 was to be able to feature guest contributions to The Biblioracle Recommends, and when Lincoln Michel (author of the recently released, The Body Scout) commented on Twitter that he thought Percival Everett’s The Trees was the best novel he’d read this year, I knew I had to ask him to say more, because I completely agree. Enjoy! (Links and recommendations after the review) - JW
The Best Novel I’ve Read This Year: The Trees by Percival Everett
by Lincoln Michel
There are some authors who find their themes and form, then spend a career honing them. Then there are the restless authors. The ones who want to do something new each book. Who must explore new genres, test new styles, and use new forms. Both types can produce astonishing, singular works, but I’ve always had an affinity toward the latter. And I can think of few better exemplars of the always moving, always astonishing writer than Perceval Everett.
The author of twenty-two novels as well as several story and poetry collections, Everett’s astounding output is matched by its great variety. His works run the gamut from the scathing publishing satire of Erasure to the spare modern Westerns stories of Half an Inch of Water to retellings of Greek myths, realist dramas, and more in between. His 2020 novel Telephone, a finalist for the Pulitzer, was a tender meditation on grief that was published in three different versions. Suffice to say that when you pick up an Everett book you never know what you are going to get.
The Trees begins in Money, Mississippi where a strange series of crimes are occurring. White men are being murdered in gruesome fashion. At each crime scene, there is a mysterious body of a Black man who looks like Emmett Till, who in real life was brutally killed in that town in 1955. Even stranger, the latter corpse keeps disappearing. It seems that revenge is being taken on the descendants of the white murderers of Money’s past. But how? A vengeful ghost? Zombies? Something else? The police are flummoxed. Soon Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, two Black detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, arrive to try to figure it out. As they investigate, more murders and more mysteries start to unfold and all of them are connected to America’s dark history of racial violence.
This is the plot of the novel, but the description likely won’t prepare you for the style. Tonally, the novel sits somewhere between Tarantinoesque revenge fantasy and slapstick comedy. Everett populates the town with bumbling, racist fools who squabble about things like the meaning of the H. in Jesus H. Christ. (“Why, it stands for, um heaven, that’s right,” the Reverend Fondle offers. “Herschel, maybe,” his wife suggests.) Everett has a penchant for Pynchonesque names like Deputy Delroy Digby, Pick L. Dill, Junior Junior, and Pinch Wheyface. It’s over-the-top by intent.
Propulsive is an over-used word, but an apt when here. The book moves quickly with short and sharp chapters filled with quippy dialogue. Here’s an exchange between detective Davis and a waitress (who may be more than a waitress) at the local diner:
“How is the chili?” Jim asked.
“Do you like chili?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then you will hate the chili here. Catfish or burger?”
“Cheeseburger,” Jim said.
“Do you like cheese?” Gertrude asked.
Why write a novel about the dark history of lynching with such a propulsive and comical style? On the one hand, the novel feels like a middle finger to the politicians and pundits who spent the Trump years telling victims of an increasingly far right GOP that they just needed to “reach out” to Trump supporters whose undisguised racial animus was waved away as mere “economic anxiety.” Trump himself makes an appearance at one point to drop racial slurs and then claim he never did.
The delicate tonal balance of the novel could only be executed by a master like Everett. If there is one commonality of his work, it’s his consistent boldness in executing ideas. For example, his novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier follows a character named “Not Sidney Poitier” whose life nevertheless mirrors the great actor’s film plots. But the slapstick gore comedy of The Trees also has a deep effect. As the plot progresses, the story grows darker and later passages (which I won’t spoil) about the very real history of lynching hit the reader right in the stomach.
A telling moment is when an elbow-patched academic type named Damond Thruff visits the town. He meets Mamma Z, an elderly woman who has spent a lifetime cataloguing lynchings. She can barely hide her disdain for Damon Thruff’s “scholarly” work on racial violence. “Your book is very interesting,” she says, “because you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage.”
Thruff can only mumble about how he “hopes that dispassionate, scientific work will generate proper outrage.” The Trees certainly doesn’t make Thruff’s mistake. This is a novel that increasingly bristles with rage as it goes on. Mamma Z brings out the list of names for Thruff to read as the plot reaches its climax. The victims of violence from the past and present whose names adorn the cover. Everett is using the gore and guffaws in the grand tradition of the Southern Gothic. By hyperbolizing reality, we are able to see it more clearly. And when the names come, the reader can’t look away.
Lincoln Michel is the author of the novel The Body Scout (Orbit) and the story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press). His fiction appears in The Paris Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Granta, and elsewhere. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and the newsletter Counter Craft.
From The Biblioracle archives, my column from 2017 in which I call Percival Everett our greatest living American writer. He’s written two masterpieces since then.
My column this week is about some encouraging signs on how much we’re reading, plus some thoughts on how we make sure that everyone has access to books.
Also at the Chicago Tribune, Christopher Borrelli walks through the proliferation of Best American… anthologies and his quest to collect them all. The 1986 edition of Best American Short Stories edited by Raymond Carver had a profound effect on me when I read it in college. I’ve got a copy of it next to my desk still.
A fun piece from Marina Luz at LitHub on how we try to describe a book we can’t quite remember when we go asking for it at a bookstore.
In honor of its 125th anniversary, the New York Times Book Review has been highlighting reviews from the past. This one by Reynolds Price of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is particularly interesting.
The Washington Post tells us which audiobooks to read/listen to this month.
Open Books is looking for a Program Director, and it feels like the audience here may either contain someone well-suited to the job, or would know someone who would be well-suited to the job.
All books linked on this page, including all those incredible Percival Everett novels are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago.
Modest increase to $190.75 for the year. Every little bit counts. I still feel like we can hit $300 before the end of the year.
If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.
Recommendations are always open for. Wait times should be minimal and some will even be featured in the print edition of the Chicago Tribune.
1. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
2. Minor Feelings by Catherine Park Hong
3. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
4. Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
5. Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and a Desire to Fit In by Phuc Tran
Ken T. - Durham, NC
Often my recommendations are a kind of differential diagnosis, where I reason through possibilities based in examining the evidence provided in the recent reads. Other times, a book just comes to me. This is one of those times: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar.
1. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
2. King by Ellen Oh
3. Warrior by Ellen Oh
.4 Prophecy by Ellen Oh (my 10 y.o. daughter and I have been on an Ellen Oh jag, obviously)
5. Sustainable, Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education by John Warner
Eric E. - North Canton, OH
Eric’s choice of Invisible Cities suggests to me he can handle a narrative not fully tethered to observable reality, which brings to mind J. Robert Lennon’s Subdivision, one of my favorite books of the year.
Go forth and conquer (kindly)!