A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

December 19, 2021 | 4 min read

From the first weeks of this year to the last, I was distracted from news of the plague by news of Donald Trump’s nearly successful attempt to annihilate American democracy. Once I went down that rabbit hole, there was no climbing out. I couldn’t stop reading about Trump’s inflammatory speech on Jan. 6, which led to the storming of the Capitol, the rioting, the killings, the manhunts, the arrests, the trials. The distraction was sickening but, after a year of lockdown and anti-mask squabbling and unnecessary death, it was also a weird kind of relief. The drab drumbeat of Covid news gave way to the fluorescent lunacy in and around the Capitol building—the QAnon shaman Jacob Chansley sporting his makeup, horned helmet, and hairy chest; Richard Barnett with his boot resting on Nancy Pelosi’s desk; yokels waving Confederate flags; Ashli Babbitt getting shot dead while trying to break down a door in the Capitol, then getting turned into a “martyr” and “murder victim” by people who believe they have a God-given right to storm federal property and overthrow an elected government. As the year draws to a close, my addiction shows no signs of abating. Today, for instance, I read every word about the sentencing of Brendan Hunt, the anti-Semitic white supremacist who got 19 months in prison (instead of the maximum 10 years) for online posts on the eve of the Capitol riot, urging like-minded citizens to “start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and let’s take america back!” Two days after the riot, he posted a video entitled “KILL YOUR SENATORS.” Hunt claimed during his trial that his rants were harmless “online blathering.” He obviously fails to understand that words matter—and they can be deadly. And they carry a cost.

On a lighter note, much of my other reading this year, like last year, was research for a nonfiction book I’m writing. While this reading may have been work-related, it was also pleasurable. I get pleasure from just about everything I read, from literary novels to newspapers, letters, auto repair manuals, graphic novels, cigar catalogs, even the lists of ingredients on food labels. Califia cold brew espresso contains locust bean gum! Who knew?

My purest reading pleasure of the year was my first stab at the work of Percival Everett, the gifted, prolific, genre-bending author of some 30 works of fiction. Everett’s latest novel, The Trees, is an ingenious mash-up of broad comedy, crime yarn, ghost story, and revenge fantasy. In the town of Money, Miss., the bodies of dead white racists start showing up—alongside the battered, unidentifiable corpse of a black man with barbed wire wrapped around his neck. That mysterious corpse keeps disappearing from the morgue, then reappearing at the scene of the next murder of white victims. The murders soon spread across the country like a berserk brushfire. What’s going on here?

Astute readers by now are hearing echoes of the murder of the black teenager Emmett Till in Money in the summer of 1955, when he has kidnapped and beaten to death, then dumped in the Tallahatchie River with barbed wire wrapped around his neck. His sin? Supposedly whistling at a white woman and grabbing her inside her family’s grocery store. The matriarch of the white clan at the center of The Trees is Granny Carolyn, who goes by Granny C, tells her daughter-in-law Charlene she’s thinking, “About something I wished I hadn’t done” to a boy she describes with two racist slurs. “Oh Lawd,” Charlene replies. “We on that again.”

The past isn’t even past—and it never will be, not in Money, Miss., or anywhere else in race-haunted America. So Granny C is Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who claimed 65 summers ago that Emmett Till had whistled at her and grabbed her, which inspired her husband and his half-brother to murder Till so viciously that his corpse was not identifiable, just like the corpses that keep showing up in The Trees. What the novel doesn’t say—doesn’t need to say—is that Carolyn Bryant recently admitted to the historian Timothy Tyson that she had fabricated the story about Till’s transgression. The boy died for no reason—and her accuser is alive today, planning to publish her memoir. The novel also leaves unsaid the coda to this story, the way it turned Jim Crow on his head. Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, insisted that his coffin remain open during the funeral so strangers and press photographers could witness the appalling effects of lynching. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she declared. She had rendered the invisible visible, and in doing so she had appropriated white supremacists’ most potent tool of terror and turned it into the source of international outrage over lynching and other facets of Jim Crow “justice.” See his face, then say his name.

The Trees accomplishes a similar miracle. Picking up where Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley left off, Everett has made Till and the thousands of other victims of Jim Crow visible, largely through the efforts of a character named Mama Z, a 105-year-old shaman who has chronicled every lynching since she was born in 1913—and has a roomful of bulging file cabinets to prove it. She’s a 21st-century Ida B. Wells. When a cop asks her why she undertook this monstrous task of cataloging atrocity, she replies, “Because somebody has to. When I die and this place is made known, I hope it will become a monument to the dead.”

The Trees is also a monument to the dead. A welcome, timely, up-to-the-minute, hilarious, and appalling monument to the dead. Read it.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

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