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A race to the grave

Getting Mother's Body: A Novel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Random House: 262 pp., $23.95

June 01, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

It's 1963. News of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders has begun to percolate into West Texas, and even the odd cop has begun to think defensively: "I can hear the people up in New York and Chicago and Warshington and Hollywood. I can hear them talking. Calling me a white supremacist." But little has actually changed. In the words of Roosevelt Beede, a former preacher who runs a gas station, "Negro life is cheap.... The life of a Negro gal with a baby in her belly and no ring on her finger is cheaper."

The pregnant girl in question -- the heroine of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' first novel -- is Roosevelt's niece, Billy Beede, who is 16 and has been seduced by a traveling coffin salesman, Clifton Snipes, who has a wife and six children already. Billy discovers this when she rides a bus from her tumbleweedy home town, Lincoln, to Snipes' home in Texhoma, carrying her wedding dress and all her hopes in a box on her lap.

Jilted, Billy wants no part of a "Snipes baby." She wants an abortion. But that will cost $100, a sum out of reach for a girl who has lost her job as a hairdresser and whose family, what there is of it, is dirt-poor. Then she thinks of the "treasure" that was supposedly buried with her mother, blues singer and grifter Willa Mae Beede, in far-off LaJunta, Ariz.: a pearl necklace and a diamond ring. If she could get her hands on those, she could solve her problems and everyone else's.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Book review -- In a June 1 Book Review of Suzan-Lori Parks' novel "Getting Mother's Body," the character of Dill is said to have died after a botched abortion. It should have said that Dill's former lover, Willa Mae, was the one who died.

Parks ("Topdog/Underdog") tells the story in brief chapters from multiple points of view, as William Faulkner did in "As I Lay Dying," a novel that could, after all, have been titled "Getting Mother's Body to the Graveyard (Whatever It Takes)." Because one of those points of view is that of Dill Smiles, Roosevelt's sister, a "bulldagger" who dresses and works like a man and was Willa Mae's lover for a time, we know that the expedition is futile: Dill -- furious over her betrayal by Willa Mae, who exposed her as a lesbian -- secretly pocketed the jewelry herself. Dill later ran off with a man and died trying to give herself a coat-hanger abortion.

All Billy knows is that time is crucial. She's already five months gone. Her mother's grave is on land recently sold to be bulldozed for a shopping center. Billy can't even raise bus fare for so long a trip, so she steals Dill's truck and heads west, accompanied by Roosevelt, his one-legged wife, June, and Homer, a cousin who joins them in mid-expedition to help dig. Dill, aiming to prevent the exhumation (and to hide her own theft), grabs a gun and follows in a hearse driven by Lazarus "Laz" Jackson, an undertaker's son who is sweet on Billy.

It's no surprise that Parks, who heads the dramatic writing program at the California Institute of the Arts, is good with voices. "Getting Mother's Body" has both bite and humor as it rattles along the two-lane blacktop toward LaJunta (pop. 30), through a world so segregated that white people -- except for the cops who jail some of the travelers for no other reason than that they might have committed a crime somewhere -- rarely appear. As in the Faulkner story, the ostensible purpose of the trip conceals hidden agendas. College-educated Homer thinks Billy must be a "hot and wild mamma" and wants some of the action. Simple-minded Laz, a virgin at 20, hopes to marry her.

June wishes she could afford an artificial leg that matches her skin. Roosevelt is haunted by guilt: He lost his divine inspiration to preach the moment he broke his promise to June's father to love her without bossing her around. Dill, primed for a showdown over the grave, mourns Willa Mae in spite of everything. Billy doesn't want to be like her mother -- fleecing suckers and having children out of wedlock -- but she finds herself using some of her mother's wiles to overcome the obstacles in her way.

Among the voices that tell the stories-within-stories in this novel is that of Willa Mae herself, singing the blues songs she made up during her checkered life: songs whose messages apply equally well to Billy's. They accompany the trip like music on a car radio. And if the ending is happier than Faulkner's and implausibly neat -- if problems evaporate like a mirage retreating from the car's front wheels -- it's still a trip well worth taking.

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