A novelist, playwright, songwriter, and screenwriter, Parks is perhaps best known for crafting “Topdog/Underdog,“ the play that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gifted and versatile, her other plays are “F------ A,“ “In the Blood,“ “The America Play,“ “Venus“ and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.“ Her first feature film, “Girl 6,“ and she has a staggering range of exciting projects on the horizon now, including writing an adaptation of Toni Morrisons novel “Paradise“ for Oprah Winfrey, and the musical “Hoopz“ for Disney.
But to clear the way for those endeavors, she had to complete her first novel, and late this spring, “Getting Mothers Body“ was released to considerable acclaim, with critics likening it to the classic works of Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. While there is strong basis for comparison, this book has a singular, infectious style and a remarkably unforgettable group of characters that distinguish it from anything else that has come before and, once again, Parks as a literary force to be reckoned with.
It is the story of Billy Beede, the dirt-poor teenage daughter of the “fast-running, no-account, and six-years-dead Willa Mae.“ One day, Billy receives a letter saying that Willa Maes burial spot in Arizona is about to become a grocery store, and as her only daughter, she has to take possession of the body, but in doing so, may also become the caretaker of a cache of jewels believe to be buried with her.
Nearly everyone around Billy or who knew Willa Mae has a stake in finding out if the gems really exist, and that list includes Snipes, Billys lover. In the opening we meet the twosome as they spar about possible marriage after a quickie make-out session in the back seat of a car on a dusty road outside a small Texas town in the early 1960‘s:
“You gonna marry me or what?“ I says.
The words come out too loud. He dont speak. He cuts on the radio but it dont work when the car aint running. He gets out, closing the back two doors, leaving mines open and getting back behind the wheel.
“Sure Im gonna marry you,“ he says at last. “You my treasure. You think I dont wanna marry my treasure?“
“People are talking,“ I says..“Im 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 dont...
“Todays Wednesday, aint it?““ Snipes says. He looks down the road, seeing his upcoming appointments in his head. “Im free towards the end of the week. Lets get married on Friday.“
“Fridays 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. “Thats 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 yourself a wedding dress and some shoes and a one-way bus ticket.““
“Ima go to Jacksons 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 Ill get down on my knee in front of my sister and her kids and ask you to marry me.“
“Hell, Ill 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.
“Itll only take a minute.“
“I dont 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. Ill meet em then.“
“When they come up you gotta ask me to marry you on yr knees in front of them too,“ I says. “Theyd feel left out if they didnt see it since youll be asking me in front of yr sister and her kids and yr mother and dad“
“My mother and dad wont be making it,“ Snipes says.
“Theys 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. Theres a story about my mother. All these months I been seeing Snipes, I didnt know whether or not hed heard it. Now I can tell he has.“
As her only daughter, Billy is heiress to Willa Maes fortune, which her lover, Dill Smiles, is said to have buried with her. Finding the cache could mean all the difference in the world to Billy, especially since she is pregnant and unmarried, so she decides to enlist her aunt and uncle in the process of uncovering it. From the onset, she makes a number of questionable decisions, such as stealing Dill‘s pickup, which puts him in hot pursuit, and the subsequent turn of events all seem as if theyll also have disaster stamped all over them, right up to the end.
In Parks capable hands, the characters and the action are riotously funny and never predictable. The creation of Billy is particularly wonderful accomplishment, though to be fair, nearly every role is something of a minor miracle. At least a dozen challenging themes, from love and family to redemption and self-esteem are tackled in the book and emerge with new sheens of insight and discovery. This work is nothing short of glorious, and its author a revelation.