The Barnes & Noble Review
Suzan-Lori Parks's sensational debut novel is a keenly written, darkly comic
story told with all the power of southern writing at its finest -- in the
singular style that won Parks a Pulitzer Prize for her playwriting.
Dirt-poor teenager Billy Beede, daughter of the
morally challenged -- and long dead -- Willa Mae, is pregnant, and she has just been jilted by her
married lover. When she learns that Willa Mae's burial plot in Arizona is
about to be plowed up (along with the jewels Willa Mae's lesbian lover, Dill, supposedly buried with her), Billy seizes the opportunity not only to rescue
her mother's body from the bulldozers but to get a little cash as well. So
she steals Dill's truck and, with her aunt and uncle along for the ride, sets out on an impromptu road trip. Along the way, Billy learns that if her
mother was not an angel, she was at least a survivor -- and that self-confidence is her own most precious possession. Andrew Ayala
The Washington Post
Though I've read countless novels, I had never read one like this. The story of Billy Beede and her kinfolk, her neighbors and strangers is also the story of a certain kind of Texas (dusty, small-town) in a certain year (1963) but told in a chorus of completely unexpected voices, as befits the first novel from a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter. — Susan Straight
The New York Times
In recounting their stories, Ms. Parks has written a convincing if modest book that suggests her future as a novelist may be as bright as her career in the theater. — Michiku Kakutani
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Unlike As I Lay Dying, which really does read like a dream -- and not a good one, either -- Getting Mother's Body is a straightforward, light-footed novel with none of the bleak, doomy undertones of Faulkner's; it's just about as funny and not nearly as scary. — Laura Miller
The Los Angeles Times
… a trip well worth taking. — Michael Harris
Parks, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog, puts her dramatic skills to good use in this fluid, assured debut novel, the story of a sweaty road trip from Texas to Arizona in July 1963. When stubborn 16-year-old Billy Beede gets knocked up and jilted by her sweet-talking, coffin-salesman lover, she needs money for an abortion. Her wild mother, Willa Mae, died when Billy was 10, and Billy lives with her "childless churchless minister Uncle and one-legged church-hopping Aunt" in a mobile home behind their rural Texas gas station. Billy's only hope for serious cash is to dig up her mother's body from its grave in LaJunta, Ariz., where Willa Mae was buried wearing a diamond ring and a pearl necklace. That, at least, is the story told by Willa Mae's one-time lover, Dill, a six-foot-tall "bulldagger, dyke, lezzy, what-have-you." Billy steals Dill's truck and, together with her aunt and uncle, embarks on a trip to Arizona to find her mother's body, her mother's treasure and her mother's memory. With disgruntled Dill in hot pursuit (chauffeured by Billy's dogged suitor, Laz, misfit son of the local funeral parlor owner), the three travel through the racist Southwest, meeting up with relatives, friends and foes. Parks narrates her brief chapters from the point of view of different characters, giving each a distinctive voice; blues songs are interwoven with the text. Parks's influences are evident-among them Zora Neale Hurston and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying-but the novel's easy grace and infectious rhythms are all her own. Fueled by irresistible, infectious talk and prose that swings like speech, this novel begs (no surprise) to be read aloud. (May) Forecast: Few playwrights enjoy the kind of success Parks has at such a young age (she was born in 1964), and few make such a seamless transition to fiction. Her reputation and the quality of this novel should fuel impressive sales. 8-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Billy Beede is a girl with troubles. Unmarried, pregnant by a married man, and needing a lot of money fast, Billy decides to travel from Texas to Arizona to retrieve her dead mother's body, hoping to find a small fortune in jewels presumably buried in the grave. But when you're black and poor in early Sixties Texas, every trip is hazardous-and even more so when your mother's lover is chasing you. Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize in drama for Topdog/Underdog, has ably transferred her talent for character and dialog from the stage to the pages of her first novel, a series of monologs by a close-knit group of characters who include the late Willa Mae Beede, singing from the grave. Parks lets the reader travel along as a welcome passenger as Billy and her family journey on dusty roads through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, past whites-only diners and redneck jails, to an unexpected treasure. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Faulkner gets an African-American rewrite in this first novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Topdog/Underdog, etc.). It's July 1963. Sixteen-year-old Billy Beede has been living in Lincoln, Texas, with her Uncle Roosevelt and Aunt June for six years, ever since her reckless, high-living mother Willa Mae died in Arizona. Willa Mae's lesbian lover, Dill Smiles, claims to have buried her with a pearl necklace and a diamond ring, and the grave is about to be plowed up and paved over by a supermarket developer. When pregnant Billy discovers that her lover is married, she heads for Arizona to unearth the jewelry to pay for an abortion. The angry teenager professes to have no feelings for her "liar and cheat" of a mother, but, as she employs Willa Mae's con-artist tricks to make her way west, Billy begins uncovering a deeper meaning in what Willa Mae called "The Hole," a quality that she identified in people only so "she'd know how to take them." All the characters here have Holes: Roosevelt has lost his church and his vocation as a minister; he and June can't have children; Dill endured Willa Mae cheating on her with men; neighbor Laz Jackson watches his beloved Billy dally with a smooth-talking adulterer; Roosevelt's widowed cousin Star struggles with bill collectors and the shame of not being able to keep son Homer in college. Playing to her strengths as a dramatist, Parks constructs the narrative as a series of first-person monologues, including several blues-drenched soliloquies by the defunct Willa Mae. Echoes of As I Lay Dying, the characters' concerns swirl around their relationships with a dead woman whose decayed body offers an uncomfortable reminder of what awaits themall. The muted happy ending doesn't have Faulkner's biblical grandeur, but we're glad to see Parks's hard-pressed men and women get a break. More conventional in form and less excitingly engaged with American history than her plays, but good enough to cause hope that more may come. Author tour. Agent: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh/William Morris
From the Publisher
“Suzan-Lori Parks is a terrific writer whose characters don’t so much talk to us as sing, full-throated, of their joys and miseries.”
—Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls
“A cheerful tack across deep Faulknerian waters.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“The kind of story that sneaks up on you and makes you care about the characters and what happens to them.”
“Even minor characters are vivid and unforgettable. . . . [The] chorus of voices . . . tells the interwoven story of Willa Mae and her daughter with such flair and harmony that I was compelled to keep reading.”
—The Washington Post
“Of course Suzan-Lori Parks can write a mean patch of dialogue . . . but the real treat here is watching Parks experiment with setting. . . . [She is] a master of pitch and mood.”
“With material steeped in the dark side of American history and a rare gift for the vernacular, [Parks is] the sort of provocateur one might get by crossing William Faulkner with Richard Pryor. . . . Parks’s dialogue rings ribald and jazzy.”
A splendid and joyous American novel.”
“There’s jazz and spunk in the writing here, tremendous humor that ultimately yields to tenderness.”
Read an Excerpt
BILLY BEEDECopyright© 2003 by Suzan-Lori Parks
“Where my panties at?” I asks him.
Snipes don’t say nothing. He don’t like to talk when he’s in the middle of it.
“I think I lost my panties,” I says but Snipes ain’t hearing. He got his eyes closed, his mouth smiling, his face wet with sweat. In the middle of it, up there on top of me, going in and out. Not on top of me really, more like on top of the side of me cause he didn’t want my baby-belly getting in his way. He didn’t say so, he ain’t said nothing bout the baby yet, but I seen him looking at my belly and I know he’s thinking about it, somewhere in his mind. We’re in the backseat of his Galaxie. A Ford. Bright lemon colored outside, inside the color of new butter. My head taps against the door handle as he goes at it.
“Huh. Huh. Huh,” Snipes goes.
In a minute my head’s gonna hurt. But it don’t hurt yet.
“Where—” I go but he draws his finger down over my lips, hushing them so I don’t finish, then he rubs my titty, moving his hand in a quick circle like he’s polishing it. I try scootching down along the seat, away from the door, but when I scootch, Snipes’ going at it scootches me right back up against the door handle again. I wonder if my baby’s sitting in me upside down and if Snipes’ thing is hitting it on its head like the door handle is hitting me on mines.
“Ow,” I go. Cause now my head hurts.
“Owww,” Snipes go. Cause he’s through.
He lays there for a minute then pulls himself out of me and gets out the car. He closes up his pants while he looks down theroad. Zipper then belt. In my head I can see all the little seeds he just sowed in me.All them little Snipeses running up inside me looking for somewheres to plant. But there’s a baby up in me already, a Baby Snipes. Baby Snipes knocks down the Little Snipes Seeds as fast as they come up.
“How you doing?” Snipes asks.
I turn from my side onto my back, raising up on both elbows. My housedress is all open and the baby makes a hump. Snipes turns to look at me, his gold-colored eyes staying on mines, seeing the hump without really seeing it. He ducks into the front seat, getting his Chesterfields out his shirt pocket, and standing there with his back to me, smoking in just his undershirt.
“Penny for yr thoughts,” I go but he don’t turn around or say nothing. I sit up, buckling my bra and taking a look around for my panties, first in the front seat then running my hand between the backseat and the seat back, thinking my panties mighta got stuck in between but not finding nothing. Then I do feel a scrap of something and give it a yank. Big red shiny drawers. Not mines. Snipes turns around and sees me holding them.
“My sister’s,” he says smiling and putting on his shirt. “I let her use my car sometimes.”
I stuff the drawers back where I found them, first leaving a little red tail sticking out, then stuffing them back in all the way.
“I didn’t know you had no sister,” I says. “I don’t know nothing about you.”
“Whatchu need to know?” he says.
“What’s her name?”
“Alberta,” he says. Then he turns away showing me the side of his face, shaved clean and right-angled as my elbow. He’s smiling hard, but not at me.
“Clifton, can I ask you something else?”
“I’ll get you some more panties, girl, don’t worry,” he says.
An hour ago, when Snipes came to get me, I was doing Aunt June’s hair. I heard his whistle. He weren’t stopped at the pumps. He was stopped across the road, standing against his car looking cool, waiting for me to come outside but waiting cool, just in case I didn’t show. I seen him and run across the road without even looking to see if cars was coming and he picked me up and swirled me around. Just like Harry Belafonte woulda.
“You ain’t been around in almost a month,” I said, breathless from the swirling.
“I been working, girl,” he said. He got a custom-coffin business. He makes and sells handmade coffins in any shape you want with plush lining inside and everything. While we drove he showed me his sample book with three new photographs, proud, like folks show pictures of they children. A oak Cadillac, a guitar of cherry wood, and a pharaoh-style one too, all big enough to get buried inside, the new ones not painted yet so folks can pick out they own colors.
“People been talking,” I said.
“What they saying?”
“Stuff,” I said. “They saying stuff.” We kissed as we drove down the road and then I started laughing cause he was tickling me and getting me undressed and showing me his sample book and driving all at the same time. His left hand on the wheel, his right hand between my legs. Then we pulled off the road. Then we did it. Now we done.
“I’ll get you a whole damn carload full of panties, girl,” he says. “Them panties you had on is probably along the side of the road somewhere between here and Lincoln.” He smiles and I smile with him. I remember taking them off. The wind was whipping and musta whipped them out the window while we drove. But that was an hour ago.
Now I look down the road, seeing if I can see them. I see somebody down there walking in the dirt and the shimmer from the heat.
“I don’t wanna go home without no panties,” I says.
“You worry too much,” Snipes says.
All the car doors are open and the wind goes through, drying the sweat off the seats.
“I gotta know something,” I says.
“The man’s supposed to ask the girl,” I whisper.
He don’t speak.
We been together since March. Now it’s July. I wanna give him a chance to ask me.
“You said I wouldn’t get bigged the first time we did it,” I says.
“Was our first time your first time?” he says.
“You gonna marry me or what?” I says. The words come out too loud.
He don’t speak. He cuts on the radio but it don’t work when the car ain’t running. He gets out, closing the back two doors, leaving mines open and getting back behind the wheel.
“Sure I’m gonna marry you,” he says at last. “You my treasure. You think I don’t wanna marry my treasure?”
“People are talking,” I says.
“They just jealous,” he says and we both laugh. “Billy Beede got herself a good-looking man and they all jealous.”
When we quit laughing we sit there quiet.
“You my treasure, girl,” he says. “You my treasure, capital T, make no mistake.”
“I’m five months gone,” I says. Too loud again.
He wraps his fingers tight around the wheel. I want him to look at me but he don’t.
Someone comes up, stopping a foot or two from the car to stare at us openmouthed. It’s Laz. He got his wool cap down around his ears and his plaid shirt buttoned to the chin.
“You want yr ass kicked?” Snipes asks him.
“Not today,” Laz says.
“You don’t stop looking at me and my woman, I’ma kick yr black ass,” Snipes says.
Laz looks at the ground.
“You don’t get the hell outa here, I’ma kill you,” Snipes says.
“Being dead don’t bother me none,” Laz says. He got a bold voice but he ain’t looking up from the ground.
Snipes jumps out the car and they stand there toe to toe. Everything Snipes got is better than everything Laz got.
“Go the hell home, Laz,” I says and he turns and goes. Snipes throws a rock and Laz runs.
“Goddamn boot-black-wool-hat-wearing-four-eyed nigger probably wanted to see us doing it,” Snipes goes, getting back in the car and laughing and holding my hand. “Peeping and creeping boot-black-winter-hat nigger.”
“Laz is just Laz,” I says.
“His daddy runs the funeral home but Laz ain’t never gonna be running shit,” Snipes says, laughing hard and squeezing my hand to get me to laugh too and I laugh till his squeezing hurts and I make him let go.
“Today’s Wednesday, ain’t it?” Snipes says. He looks down the road, seeing his upcoming appointments in his head. “I’m free towards the end of the week. Let’s get married on Friday.”
“Friday’s the day,” he says, taking out his billfold. He peeks the money part open with his pointer and thumb, then he feathers the bills, counting. His one eyebrow lifts up, surprised.
“That’s what you call significant,” he says.
“What year is it?”
“And here I got sixty-three dollars in my billfold,” he says smiling.
He pinches the bills out, folding them single-handed. He reaches over to me, lifting my housedress away from my brassiere and tucking the sixty-three dollars down between my breasts.
“Get yrself a wedding dress and some shoes and a one-way bus ticket.”
“I’ma go to Jackson’s Formal.”
“Get something pretty. Come up to Texhoma tomorrow. We can do it Friday.”
“You gonna get down on yr knee and ask me?”
“You come up tomorrow and I’ll get down on my knee in front of my sister and her kids and ask you to marry me. Hell, I’ll get down on both knees. Then we can do it Friday.”
“How bout today you meet Aunt June and Uncle Teddy?” I says.
“Today I gotta go to Midland,” he says.
“It’ll only take a minute.”
“I don’t got a minute,” he says. He looks at me. He got lips like pillows. “Have em come to Texhoma Friday. They can watch us get married. I’ll meet em then.”
“When they come up you gotta ask me to marry you on yr knees in front of them too,” I says. “They’d feel left out if they didn’t see it since you’ll be asking me in front of yr sister and her kids and yr mother and dad—”
“My mother and dad won’t be making it,” Snipes says.
“They’s passed,” he says. He starts up the car, turning it around neatly and pulling it into the road, heading back towards Lincoln. On Friday my new name will be Mrs. Clifton Snipes.
“I was ten when Willa Mae passed,” I says.
“Willa Mae who?”
“Willa Mae Beede. My mother,” I says.
Snipes takes his hand off the wheel to scratch his crotch. His foot is light on the gas pedal. There’s a story about my mother. All these months I been seeing Snipes, I didn’t know whether or not he’d heard it. Now I can tell he has.