"History is a motherfucker."
Graywolf Press, 2021
Another novel from this year's Booker Prize longlist, but I first read it a year ago during my nothing-good-is-happening-in-my-life funk so once again, because of its inclusion on the longlist, it was a reminder that I owed it to myself to do a second read. Hell of a great book, for sure.
The novel begins in "what might have been loosely considered a suburb, perhaps even called a neighborhood" by the name of Small Change, just outside the town of Money, Mississippi. Wheat Bryant,his wife Charlene and their four children live in one of the "small collection of vinyl-sided, split-level ranch and shotgun houses," and at present there is a small family gathering going on. Wheat's widowed mother Carolyn (Granny C) lives there as well, tooling around the yard in her "wide-tired" electric buggy that had originally come from Sam's Club. Times are hard -- Wheat is sort of permanently in between jobs after having fallen asleep at the wheel and nearly driving his truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Rescue came, but so did the press, capturing "some forty empty cans of Falstaff beer spilling from the cab and raining into the current below." Also at this small gathering is Wheat's cousin Junior Junior Milam. Granny C is staring off into space, thinking about something that had happened in the past, a lie she'd told "all them years back." She had "wronged" someone, and knows that "like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around." She doesn't know the half of it, nor does she know how prophetic her words will turn out to be.
The troubles begin when Deputy Sheriff Delroy Digby takes a call directing him to the home of Junior Junior, where his wife Daisy had just returned from a "big swap meet" in the parking lot of Sam's Club. On her return she'd discovered a horrific sight -- her husband was dead, beaten to a pulp and left with barbed wire wrapped around his neck; pants undone and his scrotum missing. Digby and another cop also find a dead African-American man wearing a dark blue suit, face beaten, his neck scarred "seemingly stitched together," the missing body parts in his hand. Both bodies are taken to the morgue, but the body of the African-American man has gone missing. The story goes viral after the local paper ran a picture of the missing corpse's face; it was picked up by wire services, cable news and the internet, and the mayor is not happy. It seems that people in the capitol don't trust the local boys to take care of things, and have sent two detectives (both African-American) from the MBI to investigate.
As one of these men jokingly (but seriously, really) notes, they had joined the police ranks "so that Whitey wouldn't be the only one in the room with a gun." As one might suppose, their presence is unwelcome in Money both by the police and the racist locals. The body is eventually found, this time at Wheat's house, where Wheat has also been murdered in much the same way as Junior Junior with the same African-American man in the room. The detectives from the MBI are told that their help is no longer needed, since the locals have found the body, but it goes missing yet again only to be found at another murder scene. As the detectives start considering what the hell is going on, at first they make jokes about it, with one of the detectives positing that some of the local "peckerwoods" might be behind it, or that it might be "some kind of Black ninja ... like Bruce Lee or some shit. Jamal Lee swinging lengths of barbed wire in Money, Mississippi," but as the death toll rises and reports come in from across the country of the same sort of killings, they realize that there's a hell of lot more going on than meets the eye.
While all of this may seem like a lead up to a crime novel about a serial killer, that's not what's happening here at all. Anyone who is familiar with civil rights history should have glommed on to the fact that Money, Mississippi was the site of the horrific violence perpetrated on young Emmett Till who was killed for whistling at a white woman outside of Bryant's Store in 1955. In The Trees the past catches up with the present, and payment comes due for the horrors of the past, especially lynchings, which one character, a 105-year old root doctor named Mama Z, has spent her life recording and keeping archives beginning with the murder of her father. As she says at one point, "History is a motherfucker" and here she speaks truth. The question becomes one of how to tell this story which brings to the forefront our nation's inability to confront its racist, violent past so the author brings together a number of genres in doing so. He begins with humor, stereotyping the southern white characters as ignorant rednecks, "peckerwoods," etc., and while the laughs pile up, at the same time the crime story slowly moves into what seems to be a revenge thriller before taking a supernatural turn. It's one of those novels where the humor belies the seriousness of what the author is saying, and I think it's fair to say that even though I laughed out loud in parts, neither the tragedy nor the lesson were lost on me at all.
The second reading with a clearer head made me love it even more than the first time; it is farcical and absurdist, at times slapsticky but deadly sincere in its seriousness. As one of the dead Black characters in the novel notes, "I'm gonna die now, for a while. But I'll be back. We'll all be back." And indeed they will -- to mete out punishment or justice where there was none before. This awesome satire flips the white narrative about race in America completely on its head, and it is a beyond-brilliant story told by a master of his craft, one I can and do recommend it to everyone. Sadly, the people who really should read it and glean something from it probably won't or will miss the point entirely.
bottom line: READ THIS BOOK!