The title Getting Mother’s Body is not a metaphor for aging and being alarmed at coming more and more to resemble the parent as remembered from childhood (when the parent was the age the child now is). It is quite literal. The body of Willa Mae Beede has been in the ground in LaJunta, Arizona for six years in 1963, but is going to be dug up. A supermarket parking lot is going to be built and the dead are going to be moved (well, discarded unless loved ones rescue them). Willa Mae’s 16-year-old daughter, a 5-month pregnant hairdresser at the House of Style called Billy, sets off from Lincoln, Texas to recover the treasure that must be buried with Willa Mae. She has been counting on getting them someday, but the supermarket project makes the need to get there immediate. (Filial piety is secondary to the need for treasure–which is to pay for an abortion.)
The novel is a very funny road novel. It is sort of a chase in the tradition of Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs (filmed by Mel Brooks). Actually, before setting off to disinter her mother, Billy gets a price reduction on a wedding dress. When she turns up at the house of the traveling salesman (of customized coffins) who impregnated her and told her a mess of lies, Snipes (a name with obvious Faulkner reverberations), Billy finds that there is already a Mrs. Snipes… and six little Snipeses.
Willa Mae’s (butch and strapping “bulldagger” hog-farmer) female lover Dill Smiles (who seems a refugee from Carson McCullers’s (Georgia) Sad Cafe rather than from Faulkner territory–by which I don’t just mean Mississippi!) has strong reasons to want Willa Mae to remain where she is and refuses to lend Billy busfare to Arizona or Dill’s truck, so Billy steals it. She is accompanied by her uncle Theodore Roosevelt Beede (a preacher without a congregation who runs a gas station), and his resentment-poisoned one-legged wife, June (the Faulkner reverberations just keep coming!). Teddy and June have taken care of Billy since and even before the death of the wild Willa Mae.
When Dill finds her prized truck has been borrowed, she sets off in pursuit, accompanied by Billy’s patient (or utterly besotted) Laz Jackson, son of the local undertaker in his father’s second-best hearse.
Like William Faulkner’s comic road novel As I Lay Dying, there are multiple narrators in Getting Mother’s Body, (including some I have not even mentioned–I should mention the dicty, college-educated cousin Homer Beede Rochfoucault, who needs money to pay off debts and drives Billy part of the way). Willa Mae mostly contributes songs and stray bits of advice on conning others by recognizing their soft spots (“holes”). The voices are colloquial and varied and provide major pleasures of the text.
There are lots of plot complications and I like how Parks handles the confluence of extended family when they all converge on the grave site where Dill buried Willa Mae six years before.
“Where my panties at?” is by no means a weak start, but the ending is even better and the ride between provides amusement and insights into cupidities, blind spots, and complicated human bonds. Black identity is not a particular concern, as I gather it is in some of Parks’s plays. It is just taken for granted. (One surprise is a sympathetic rural white sheriff’s deputy.)
I’m disappointed that Parks has not yet published a second novel and surprised that Oprah Winfrey or someone else has not turned Getting Mother’s Body into a movie yet, especially since Parks worked on scripting “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2005) and “The Great Debaters” (2007), both produced by Winfrey’s production company.