The Trees by Percival Everett

“Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.”


Percival Everett is an author that has been on my radar for a while now. And in many ways, The Trees does showcase the hand of a talented writer, as the book showcases plenty of quick-witted dialogues and clever descriptions, all topped by an unsparing yet humorous social commentary. It did take me a while to adjust to the tone and direction of his story as I thought that The Trees would be something in the realms of something by Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, or S.A. Cosby. I was surprised when I was confronted by an almost absurdist tone, one that brought to mind certain films by the Coen brothers, which usually abound with minor yet memorable side characters. The satirical way in which Everett depicts small towns and small-town ‘mentalities’ reminded me of certain books by Stephen King, as they both succeed in bringing to life—often more for the worse than the better—those who inhabit smaller communities in rural America. For the first few pages in fact I believed that The Trees had a historical setting, given the opinions and behaviours voiced and showcased by the family appearing in that opening sequence. It is only when more modern things are mentioned or make an appearance that I realized that the story had a contemporary setting.
Everett effectively renders how insular, bigoted, and reactionary the people of Money, Mississippi are. They are a rural community, one that is teeming with poorly educated racist white-nationalist who struggle to find employement and fulfilment. Their bubble of insularity is burst when their town becomes the setting for a series of mind-boggling murders. The white murdered men appear to share an ‘unpleasant’ (this is an understatement of course) connection and at each crime scene, there is also another body, that of a Black man who eerily resembles Emmett Till, the victim of a lynching. Another odd detail is that the white men are castrated (which of course gives way to a repetitive verging on the homophobic gag which i frankly could have done without).
Two detectives from the Bureau of Investigation and the local authorities, who are both inept and racist, attempt to get in their way. As more men die in the same peculiar circumstances the detectives find themselves looking for answers in the past. Are these murders an act of retribution? If so, by the hands of whom? The disappearing body of Emmett Till adds a dimension of surreality to the murders, so much so that I started to wonder whether Everett would go the route King did in The Outsider.
Everett favours no perspective and throughout the book, he switches between the townspeople of Money to the detectives. I, like other readers, of course, preferred those sections that focused on the detectives and their investigation. They had a good if slightly cliched dynamic but their banter was entertaining and they play off each other quite well. If anything I found myself wanting to spend more time with them and less with the often cartoonish people of Money. That is not me saying or suggesting that people such as the ones we encounter in Money do not exist. I have come across Jordan Klepper’s videos (where he interviews trump supporters) and boy oh boy…still, Everett is quite heavy-handed in his use of satire, so much so that most of the characters populating his novel are closer to caricatures than fully-dimensional individuals. There were many instances where I found the humour crass and distracting as it took away from otherwise poignant or important scenes where characters discuss lynching, racism, and police brutality. I also did not like how the author writes about fat people, it reminded me of Family Guy tbh. So not my kind of ‘humor’. I could have also done without the very cliched female characters we get in this novel, in particular, the detectives’ no-nonsense strong-willed ‘ally’. This is the type of character often penned by male authors, with good intentions I’m sure, but I just find this type of characterisation lazy.
The pacing was somewhat uneven. There were several instances where I found my attention drifting away or where I found myself growing weary of the unrelenting satire, especially in those instances where it takes on a sillier tone. There are several storylines that do eventually come together but in a not quite satisfying manner. There are some loose ends or certain parts that just did not feel that convincing or well-executed. The ending in particular didn’t really work for me. Maybe if we’d been given insight into that part of the story from the get-go I could have adjusted more to it but we don’t so I was really sold on it. Still, I can recognise that just because I thought that the content of the story was at odds with the narrative tone does not mean that you will feel the same way so if you are curious about this book I recommend you also check out some 4 or 5-star reviews. This was less of a crime/thriller than a dark occasionally OTT satire which I wasn’t quite in the mood for. Still, I’ll definitely check out more books by this author. I appreciated the issues he tackles in The Trees, in particular on addressing racist violence both in the past and in the present. Ultimately however the tone of his narration eroded much of my interest in his story so that I found myself reading less out of a desire to do so and more so out of a sense of misplaced duty (on the lines of, i am already halfway there, might as well finish this).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”

Devastating, heart-wrenching, and full of love and sorrow, Men We Reaped is an unforgettable memoir. Jesmyn Ward recounts her experiences growing up poor, female, and Black in the rural South during the late 80s and 90s. Ward interweaves her personal account with a brutal social commentary that highlights what it means to be poor and Black, and of how racism, specifically in the South, remains an insidious and widespread phenomenon with tragic consequences. Interrupting those chapters in which Ward recounts her childhood and teenage years are chapters focusing on the lives of five Black men, all of whom died young as a result of addictions, suicide, and accidents. Some of these men, we learn, were her friends growing up. We see how the school system either pegged them as problem students or ignored them, which inevitably would make them feel ‘less than’ and worthless. Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, is one of these young men, which makes these chapters all the more hard-hitting.
Ward shows how deep-rooted institutionalised racism is and how it results in social and economic disparities. In looking back to the past, Ward tries to understand the motivations behind the actions and behaviours of the adults around her, in particular, her mother and her father, a serial cheater who would eventually leave them behind. In discussing the lives of these men she cared for, Ward considered the high mortality rate among young Black men, and of the way in which their community is affected by generational trauma, drug addiction, etc. Ward ultimately feels conflicted about the South, a place that has played a fatal role in the deaths of the people she loved. Yet, even after moving away to pursue higher education, she finds herself longing to return to it. Ward, in some ways, appears to be haunted by it and by the role it played in the deaths of so many men she knew and loved.
With heartbreaking clarity and piercing insight, Ward writes of her childhood, of the lives of those young men who died such violent and sudden deaths, of her own family and her relationship to her parents, of her community, and of social inequality. More impressive still than Ward’s talent for vividly portraying a specific time and place is her ability to articulate her grief over the death of her brother and her friends.
While this memoir is by no means an easy read, it did in fact distress me, ultimately, I think it’s a necessary read. Ward’s lyrical prose reads like an elegy, both to the men that died at such a young age and to the South. Men We Reaped is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking read. While this memoir is mired in pain and grief, Ward’s elegiac prose and empathy balanced out its bleaker aspects. With admirable lucidity Ward attempts to reconcile herself with the confusion and anger brought about by the inequalities experienced by her community and by her loved one deaths.

Some quotes that will haunt me:

“[T]he message was always the same: You’re Black. You’re less than White. And then, at the heart of it: You’re less than human.

“We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies. For years I carried the weight of that despair with me;”

“But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and Demond and C. J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my friends’ lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother’s life was worth, more than the nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he’s been dead. It is worth more than I can say. And there’s my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say.”

“We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts.”

my rating: ★★★★☆

Revival Season by Monica West

“Papa had carefully cultivated our belief in him. He never said it outright—Believe in me as you believe in God—that would have been obvious blasphemy and idolatry. But he was the all-consuming presence that had filled my entire life, taking up all the space in the house and in revival tents. In its absence was a black hole that seemed bigger than the presence that had inhabited it.”

Thoughtful if sad Revival Season is a novel about faith and healing. Written in a quietly elegant prose Revival Season paints an intimate, if troubling, family portrait. The Hortons are an Evangelical Black family. The pater familias is a renowned preacher who has healed and saved hundreds of souls. Miriam, his fifteen-year-old and our narrator, has been brought up under his rigid rule. She’s homeschooled, seems to exclusively interact with members of their church, she has to dress modestly and comport herself in a respectful way. Miriam is used to this way of living and doesn’t long for a different lifestyle. She looks up to her father and is close to her mother, she cares for and is responsible for her young sister Hannah, who was born with cerebral palsy, and she gets on as best as she can with her brother. Every year during the summer the Hortons travel across the South for ‘revival season’. The previous year Reverend Horton was involved in an altercation, one that Miriam has tried hard not to dwell on. But when her father’s healing powers fail him once more Miriam becomes once again witness to his violent outbursts. When they return to their hometown Miriam is unable to forget what she was. Over the course of a year, Miriam becomes painfully aware of how dangerous her father is. As her faith in him begins to waver Miriam discovers that, unlike him, she now has the ability to heal others. Forced to hide her gift from her father, Miriam has to decide whether to keep her healing a secret or cure others and risk her father’s ire.

Revival Season presents readers with an intimate look at a family that is unravelling. Monica West does a fantastic job in capturing Miriam’s voice. Not only does Miriam’s tender narration convey her young age and sheltered upbringing—without making her sound wholly naïve—but it is also succeeds in being introspective and perceptive. In articulating Miriam’s conflicted and shifting feelings towards her father West demonstrates great sensitivity. I could sadly relate all too easily to Miriam and found West’s nuanced portrayal of her father to be incredibly realistic. In fiction there is a tendency to paint abusers as one-dimensional monsters, but in real life things are not so clear-cut.
As the narrative progresses West explores Miriam’s faith in God and her self-belief. As Miriam is forced to question the image that she has of her father, she begins to tests the boundaries and rules he had long imposed on her. During this time Miriam also learns more about her mother’s past and begins to see her in a new light.

I think part of me did find the narrative to be slightly slow-moving and I did find myself wishing for a story with a broader scope. I was also a bit disappointed by the lack of revivals (ever since watching Carnivale and True Detective i have been oddly fascinated by them, go figure). Most of the narrative (70-80%) takes place in Miriam’s home and her father’s church, which resulted in some rather limited scenery. I think my lack of faith (i know i know, i am heathen) also played into my not being wholly captivated by what I was reading given the amount of Bible passages we get and that one of the novel’s primary concern is Christianity. Readers with stronger ties to Christianity will probably be able to appreciate this novel more than I was.
Last but not least, we get the dreaded “I released the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding” line which I have come to despise. Scratch that, I feckin hate it.

In spite of my reservations about the novel’s pacing and ‘breadth’, I can say with certainty that this is a well-written (- that one line) and poignant debut novel, one that should definitely appeal to fans of Purple Hibiscus (which is also narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in a religious and abusive household).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz

 

When I started reading The Gone Dead I was expecting a thriller, something in the realms of When No One is Watching or with the setting and tone of Sharp Objects. What The Gone Dead is not so much of crime/thriller story but a narrative that focuses on depicting a certain community, exploring its racist history and its existing racial tension as well as providing a sobering picture of the socio-economic struggles experienced by many of its inhabitants (such as poverty and addiction). The supposed mystery that drives the narrative is not a mystery, not really. Readers will probably be able to tell what truly happened to the main character’s father, a Black poet who died in a small town on the Mississippi Delta in the the early 70s in what was at the time deemed to be an accident. Although many of the chapters focus on his daughter, Billie, who is in her late thirties and through her grandmother’s death has recently inherited her father’s house, many switch to secondary, even tertiary, characters, providing us with glimpses into their perspectives and lives.
As with many stories focusing on a character returning to their small hometown after years away, Billie’s amateurish investigation into her father’s death inevitably puts her in danger.

Before I move onto the reasons why I did not particularly love this novel, I first want to talk about what Benz excels at, and that is the setting. Benz vividly portrayal of this small community emphasises many of its shortcomings: there is a general small-mindedness, a racial divide, a distrust of strangers, a reverence of the olden days. Benz’s capture the atmosphere of this town and many of Billie’s encounters with the locals are pervaded by a sense of unease.
In addition, Benz’s social commentary is sharp-witted and her dialogues are on point.

The storyline itself suffers from pacing issues. Benz reveals much too soon certain details about Billie’s father’s death so that the story lost much of its momentum in the very first part of the novel. Billie herself is not a particularly compelling or fleshed out character. The people around her, even if at times a bit one note, were far more interesting. Whereas the author really explores the setting, from its history to its present day, Billie remains a half-formed thing. She seemed to exist only from the moment she steps into her father’s old house, before that, nothing. Her past and current jobs, relationships, and friendships remain largely absent. That she never thinks of her life before venturing into this small town seemed weird to me. Her personality too was almost nonexistent. She is her father’s daughter, and that’s it. She makes lots of stupid and impulsive decisions and then goes on to be amazed by the dangerous situations she lands herself in.
There is a quasi-love story which felt really out of place, especially considering her initial suspicions towards this guy (and to be honest, he was bland).
I would have liked to learn more about Billie’s father himself, as the man ultimately remains but a vague impression of a poet. Billie’s mother, who is dead by the start of the novel, receives a similar treatment (she was white and a Medieval historian, and that’s that).

While I liked The Gone Dead‘s grittiness, ultimately, the story and characters failed to grab me. Nevertheless, I would probably read something else by Benz.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith — book review

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Blackwood is a gritty read. Set in Red Bluff, Mississippi, a rather dismal small-town, the story follows a small cast of miserable characters. There is a family that is new to town, that are referred to as ‘the man’, ‘the woman’, and ‘the boy’, who stir some trouble with the locals, the sheriff, Myer, and Colburn, a sculptor who has return to Red Bluff after years away. The characters spend most of the narrative expressing their dejected opinions, the male characters in particular seem prone to long and existentialist monologues (that did not seem to fit with their characters but whatever) and feeling a growing sense of unease. In the background there are some kudzu vines that are acting up, swallowing up whatever, and whoever, is in their path.
I wasn’t fond of the way in which Smith would avoid referring to his characters’ names, and often I wasn’t sure who the scene was focusing on. The two ‘mains’, Myer and Colburn, had the same kind of wretched disposition. The three women who have some page-time are treated like doormats most of the time….or are just there so the men can lust after their bodies.
I guess I liked the atmosphere but I didn’t find this to be a particularly memorable or disconcerting read.

My rating: ★★✰ 2 of 5 stars

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