An epic journey to dig up the remains of a mother, especially recounted using multiple points of view, cannot help but recall an earlier work about a journey to bury a mother’s body: William Faulkner’s 1930 novelAs I Lay Dying, which thus becomes the intertext of Suzan-Lori Parks’sGetting Mother’s Body. Faulkner’s experimental work, structured episodically as a series of interior monologues—including a memorable one spoken posthumously by Addie Bundren—chronicles the trials by flood and fire that Anse and his children face as they take the body of their unfaithful wife and mother back home for burial. What begins as a sometimes grotesquely humorous, picaresque tale about a poor, rural white family facing death and decay in order to fulfill a promise is raised, in Faulkner’s hands, to the level of myth and archetype.
In a novel of almost precisely the same length, Parks’s rotating viewpoint employs an even larger number of narrators (twenty to Faulkner’s fifteen) and fragments the narrative into a greater number of brief sections (seventy-one to Faulkner’s fifty-nine). Both novels include a chapter of only a single sentence in length, and Parks names one of her minor characters Addie.
The time of Parks’s novel is 1963, and the place is Lincoln, Texas, named after the president who emancipated the slaves. Now, a century afterward, a number of townspeople are preparing to join the Civil Rights March on Washington at which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., will give his “I Have a Dream” speech. The book’s central journey, however, is a more personal one. As the story opens, the unmarried, pregnant Billy Beede is engaging in sex in the backseat of a lemon-colored Ford Galaxie belonging to Clifford Snipes (one time mistakenly referred to as “Snopes” in yet another reference to Faulkner), who is the father of the baby she is carrying. Methods of transportation become important markers of socioeconomic status, with the motley procession to recover the body involving a stolen pickup truck, a hearse, and a Mercury Park Lane—the last belonging to Billy’s cousin Homer Rochfoucault, whose uppity mother, Estelle, disparages and does everything in her power to deny her dirt-poor black heritage.
Clifford, like some African folk artisans, is a designer and maker of coffins in the shapes of objects apropos the deceased’s vocation or interests, such as a black doctor’s bag for a physician. Never having told Billy much about his life, and even withholding his real first name, he tricks her into thinking that he will marry her. She goes, expensive wedding dress and shoes in hand, by bus—where segregated seating forces her to the back—to his hometown, only to discover his wife and children. After setting fire to the dress, she returns home determined to rid herself of anything that connects her with Snipes and planning to abort the baby as a final act of revenge.
Getting the money for an abortionist, however, proves a problem. The promise of buried treasure may offer a solution. When Willa Mae died, leaving behind her illegitimate, ten-year-old daughter Billy, Willa’s lesbian lover Dill Smiles crossed Willa’s hands over her heart, dug the grave herself in the back yard of her mother’s Pink Flamingo motel in LaJunta, Arizona—and took Willa’s jewels, feeling that they were owed to her because of the disrespect Willa had shown by her infidelity. Such disrespect was in sharp contrast to the deference others had always shown the coffee-colored Dill, with her Seminole features. Comfortable with her sexuality, the rather mannish-looking woman was admired for her work ethic and the money she earned raising hogs. Even her mother, Candy Napoleon, accepts and is tolerant of her daughter’s sexual orientation.
Now a real estate developer plans to dig up Willa Mae’s grave to build a supermarket and parking lot. Billy always felt distanced from her small-time grifter mother, whose hair was straightened and whose misdemeanors on an aborted trip to Hollywood to find a husband had resulted in their being incarcerated in a succession of jailhouses. Billy had even once denied that she was born of her mother’s body. She still believes, however, that her mother’s bones deserve to be kept intact. In a truck taken from Dill, she sets out on a picaresque journey that will involve cousin Homer’s being serviced sexually by a white woman whose husband refuses to serve food to blacks in their restaurant, as well as a con...