From the first paragraph of Percival Everett’s new novel The Trees:
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 … a marker of self-conscious ignorance ….
It looks exactly like it sounds and it’s named with irony? So it doesn’t look exactly like it sounds? And “nescience” is a synonym of “ignorance.”
From the first sentence of the second paragraph:
Just outside Money, there was what might loosely have been considered a suburb, perhaps even called a neighborhood, a not-so-small collection of vinyl-sided, split-level ranch and shotgun houses ...
What are we supposed to picture: a suburb, a neighborhood, or a not-so-small collection? (I can’t actually picture that last one.) Is Money larger than not-so-small?
And from the third paragraph’s opening:
… Wheat was between jobs, was constantly, ever, always between jobs. Charlene was always quick to point out that the word between usually suggested something at either end … and that Wheat had only held one job in his whole life ….
Does that mean he’s stopped looking for work? The narrator doesn’t tell us. Three paragraphs later, we do learn what the job was, but not the length of time Wheat held it, or when he held it. And not whether he’s stopped looking for work, or whether he can’t get hired because of how he lost his job.
The story of how Wheat lost his job features a very funny image. But Chapter 3 opens with a sheriff who doesn’t like murder because it requires a lot of paperwork—how did no one tell Everett how tired that joke is? And that’s where I dropped out. Which of us violated the contract first, me or the book? You can decide.
The Trees, the cover summary tells us, is about a series of murders of Black people (the horror of the first murder is graphically detailed) and the investigation into them, and I could have kept going for that story, but Captain Blue Pencil taking part in that conversation seems a bit much. –Jim Woster (Graywolf Press, graywolfpress.org)