BY itself the cherry tree front cover and title Trees might suggest, visually at least, some rural Celtic saga of family strife, but the insides quickly disabuse that notion. We are in Mississippi noir territory, noir in the sense of a multiple murders, noir in that we half know this story from history, noir in the sense of black humour, noir in the sense of a missing cadaver (black), noir in the sense of the seemingly amiable detective duo Ed Morgan and Jim Davis sent to unravel the mystery in the unwelcoming white town of Money. This is is Mississippi, as the police chief points out, spelled out MI and crooked letters-crooked letters – I – crooked letters-crooked letters I-P-P-I. If the satire is broad stroke bravura, the secrets in Mama Z’s backroom are precise.
The only description afforded the girl in Dinah’s Diner is ‘slender’. Her name tag says Dixie, which earns more tips than Gertrude. We are dialogue dependent here, sitcom slapstick, although the names like the coroner Dr Revered Fondle, Granny C, Lulabelle and Little Tallahatchie spell out the south as in a town with a ‘tradition of irony and nescience’. Granny C is the Carolyn Bryant whose testimony led to the lynching of Emmet Till, Bryant and Milam are children of Till’s killers.
Percival Everett, a professor of English in south California, has written more than 30 books, so perhaps, like Alan Garner for Treacle Walker, there is an element of saluting a life’s work in listing this in the Booker long list. It is a very untypical Booker listing. Short sentences. No descriptions. Fast. Twisted. Easy reading. This is chapter 71, in its entirety:
“Ho to Hind: ‘What the hell is going on?”
The social order is inverted. Bigotry and racism perhaps do not brook much depth, spouses are typically overweight and marooned in sofas, but putting the good guys in uniforms only gives them a little more padding. These are cops who have chicken sandwiches for lunch. It is the women who move through these pages and make the novel shake and tremble. They have the pizzazz, the ownership of the moral compass: Medical examiner Helvetica Quip, divorcee from a pyramid selling husband, FBI agent Herbeta Hind…we departed from real-time history some pages ago and moved into a one dimensional black comedy, a strip cartoon-town, clichés that don’t need to be said anymore, the post apocalyptic that never is/was…Everett teases out the humour, almost tickles it in the police procedurals, sly, conspiratorial, clever, fun, like he is telling a story on his front porch, like he is old enough, now, to tell this story which might have been too much for anyone closer to tell safely.
The real time population today of Money is down to less than 100; in the 1950s it was upwards of 400 supported by a cotton mill. Mama Z’s parents, it is briefly noted, were slave master and a slave. This is back of backwoods America. The delta diaspora has washed its guilt away. Here is revenge, of a sort.