What We’re Reading: ‘The Trees’ is rooted the in history of Emmett Till and is an amazing, unexpected book, both dark and funny

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I’d been reading new books about hate crimes.

So I did not expect to find myself stifling a laugh. Which happened while reading the best of these books, “The Trees” (Graywolf, $16) by Percival Everett. I was sitting in the car, early in the morning, no one else there. After I cracked up, I looked around. It seemed disrespectful. Still, amid the anger, the mourning, the killings and karmatic retribution that unfolds, those giggles persisted. A few were loud. Some of the characters felt baked into rich caricatures, backwood hillbillies with names like Delroy and Wheat and Junior Junior. I thought about what the inevitable movie would look like, and how Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele would be perfect to play the detectives. “The Trees” forces you into that bind, perching you on a nexus, taking in injustice, literary fiction, remembrance, genre thrills, cheap thrills.

It’s the most exciting thing I’ve read this year.

There are more traditional takes on this subject, of course. “The Matter of Black Lives: Writings From the New Yorker” (Ecco, $35) is no anthology of hate crimes, but by nature of being 75 years of New Yorker stories about Black America, it touches on the 2015 massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (a story by Edwidge Danticat), rural lynching (Rebecca West), segregation and George Floyd. It’s also far from a litany of systemic suffering. Speaking of Key and Peele: Among the treats here is a great 2015 Zadie Smith profile of the comedy team. “Say Their Names: How Black Lives Came to Matter in America” (Grand Central, $30) is a familiar but welcome one-stop shop of reportage by veteran journalists on the issues (policing, inequality) that coagulated into nationwide protests. It can also be boiled down to James Baldwin’s question: “How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”

A ticktock account of the 2018 shooting in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jews is less central to journalist Mark Oppenheimer than what came after. “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood” (Knopf, $29), his new book, is that rare narrative about how a community tiptoes through the wake of a hate crime. The presidential visit. Funerals. Frayed relationships. Tourists. “My Monticello,” the chilling title novella that concludes Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut collection (Holt, $27) gathers centuries of hate into a contemporary race war at the front door of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. A band of survivors take shelter there, to make their last stand.

Each is thoughtful and needed and smart, and yet none of them surprise, shock, upend.

“The Trees,” however, is nuts. It’s freewheeling, unpredictable, bravely hilarious, borderline blasphemous. And original — the inevitable response to decades of American scapegoating. Think absurd, without being cynical; or vengeful, without being mindless; or loose, though never mannered. And again, funny, but like the stand-up of Richard Pryor (or Paul Beatty’s classic novel “The Sellout,” about a Black man who wants to revive slavery) the laughs catch in your throat. It’s a mordant Chicago tale, in a way. It holds ties with the city, a sprig of hope and a limited expectation of unity.

I loved this book so much. Without giving much away: It tells the story of a series of killings in Money, Miss., that seem uncannily connected to another crime in Money, the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The South Side teenager was visiting relatives when he was accused of whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. He was lynched, tortured, mutilated, fastened with barbed wire to a 70-pound fan blade and tossed into the Tallahatchie River. His killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s then-husband), admitted they did it, once they were acquitted. In 2008, Carolyn Bryant said that she had lied about the whistling. Yet Till’s murder served as one of the catalysts to the civil rights movement.

You probably know this.

Everett — one of the great underrated novelists of contemporary American literature (and also a Pulitzer finalist this year for “Telephone,” his excellent 2020 novel about grief) — never backs into history. He returns to America’s legacy of violence with a wary, jaundiced, wry “what’s next?” He opens on the descendants of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, still living amid the rural poverty of Money, that name now “slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.” Neither is the past. Bryant, now called Granny C, frets over Till. “Ain’t nothing can change what happened,” a daughter-in law assures. “You cain’t bring the boy back.”

Except, in Money, people die of culpability.

Police even suspect that one died of fright, of an unsettling vision of their crimes. Which makes sense in Money. When the book begins, the ancestors of Till’s murderers are turning up murdered themselves, their own necks pearled with barbed wire.

Soon, there are similar killings across the country.

The road leads back to Chicago and a warehouse near Midway Airport.

What, you wonder — actually, everyone in this book wonders — is happening? Supernatural forces? Historic revenge? Something more conspiratorial? Characters stare meaningfully into the darkness of Southern woods and note the air feels different. Which sounds like terrible, hokey writing. At best, self-consciously satiric stuff. But Everett is never slight with the historic burden here; this never turns into a Tarantino alt-reality cartoon. Every dip into convention and cliché is calculated so confidently, “The Trees” is partly about the culture each of us we nuzzles into, and the easy outs we give to ourselves, particularly when it comes to race. There’s no inspiration or understanding or healing here.

Say their names, indeed.

Among the characters is a 105-year old woman who has been keeping records on every lynching victim in the United States since she was born. She asks a friend at the University of Chicago to come to down to Money and record her archive — for posterity, he assumes.

And so Everett, for pages, simply lists names, real names.

That he does this without losing a dreamlike counter-South is remarkable. There’s a character named Ditka (not that Ditka) and a cop named Wesley Snipes (not that Wesley Snipes). Everett specializes in risk, in mashes of convention and ideas that seem so keenly pulverized, it’s fair to say he doesn’t see demarcation. He writes Westerns and detective novels and literary fiction about the Way We are, but he also doesn’t write those kind of books. “I Am Not Sidney Poitier,” his 2009 novel on identity, is about the (fictional) adopted son of Ted Turner. “Erasure,” his 2001 publishing-world story, features a writer whose books don’t conform to (white) editor’s ideas of Black writing, so he pens a bitter parody of what’s expected, the contents of which sprawl in “Erasure.”

“The Trees” — the novel I would expect to break Everett into the mainstream — might be too unwieldy itself. Or too untethered, and therefore, too unnerving. It’s like the crazy eyes of a man with nothing to lose. It’s a provocation and a mystery, but never an impenetrable one: That title could refer to lynchings, or the history of nation itself, a lineage so rooted in violence against people of color, the soil is stained, the ground is unstable. Either way, if there is justice, that phrase, “The Trees,” it should come to acquire the heft of a “Catch-22,” a new reminder that it’s not just you — this country is bonkers. So what does happen in this book? A reckoning.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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