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Percival Everett's Novel 'The Trees' Parses Through Race's Part In A Southern Murder

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Special detectives Ed Morgan and Jim Davis are the big-city heat from Hattiesburg. They're with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, and they're in the small town of Money to investigate the murder of two men in the back room of the same shotgun-style house - one, a white man who's disfigured in a way so gruesome we can't tell you without a trigger warning, if you please; the other, a Black man, seems to just walk out of the morgue.

"The Trees" is a novel by Percival Everett, the author of more than 30 books and the recipient of a Guggenheim. He joins us now from South Pasadena, Calif. Thank you so much for being with us.

PERCIVAL EVERETT: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The murders are gruesome in detail, the language is rough and there are racial epithets of all kinds, and the humor is politically incendiary. How did you make this novel so screamingly funny?

EVERETT: I'm glad to hear that it is (laughter). I don't know that it is. I think that's perhaps where the humor lies, is that it's so absurd.

SIMON: Have events of the last couple of years helped you shape the story in your mind?

EVERETT: Well, certainly. But it's a story that didn't become evident in the last couple of years. It was - the stuff of the novel was simply underscored, as if we needed reminding. But it's been present.

SIMON: Well, that brings us to your character Mama Z. Tell us about her, if you could.

EVERETT: Mama Z - I'm not sure who she represents for me, except that she is - she's an archivist.

SIMON: She keeps a list with names in pencil - pointedly in pencil, too.

EVERETT: Yes, because identities, though fixed and forever, are also forgettable and fleeting.

SIMON: And these are names - some of which readers would recognize, most of which most readers will not - of lives lost.

EVERETT: That's the great sadness. It's a list of the names of those lynched in American history - Black, white, Asian. And the striking thing to me about the list is how singular the names are, even when they're the names we hear everywhere. And in the list, the most striking names to me are the ones that say unidentified Black woman.

SIMON: Yeah.

EVERETT: Nameless Black man.

SIMON: Like all great novels, this one eventually winds through Chicago.

EVERETT: (Laughter).

SIMON: You talk about a place called the Acme Cadaver Company of Chicago. Is it inspired by anything that actually exists that you've seen?

EVERETT: It is not, no.

SIMON: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, am I relieved. Well, can you tell us about it?

EVERETT: Without...

SIMON: I guess the name gives it away, doesn't it? Yeah.

EVERETT: Well, the bodies used in medical schools and by, I guess, would-be morticians must come from somewhere. And in my imagination, they come from the Acme Cadaver Company, which acquires bodies and then sells them.

SIMON: I've got to ask you. I enjoyed the book a lot. So many of the white Southerners in this book are not just bigots. They're obese. They're dumb. They smell, as you write, memorably, of one, of excrement - and you don't say excrement - Aqua Velva and pimento cheese, which is an awfully clever phrase. And with no apologies made for white bigots, are you stereotyping white Southerners?

EVERETT: Welcome to club. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EVERETT: I am, in fact. How does it feel? That's my question. Yes, I'm not fair in this novel. It's not a novel about fairness. In fact, after I wrote the first page, my admission to my wife was, well, I'm not being fair, and I'm not going to do anything about it.

SIMON: President Obama has often quoted Martin Luther King in saying that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. This novel suggests that, well, justice maybe can be helped along in some other ways.

EVERETT: I suppose that's an optimistic way of putting it. The fantasy part of this novel should not go without note. The justice that comes is not one that I think we can expect. I don't know if justice comes as much as acquiescence.

SIMON: What's it like to have this novel inside your mind and heart and then out?

EVERETT: I don't know if, given the substance of it, if it can ever be out of my mind. I suppose I have artistic concerns that there are those who might read it and, because of the use of humor, miss the gravity. But to tell the truth, if that's the case, then they wouldn't understand anyway.

SIMON: Yeah. There's no missing the gravity, but I do think the humor helps you take the next step, if that makes any sense.

EVERETT: I learned that from Mark Twain.

SIMON: Percival Everett - his novel "The Trees" - thank you so much for being with us.

EVERETT: Well, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.