Suzan-Lori Parks
(Fourth Estate)
Something weird is going on, no? A recent New Yorker gives us a shot of Chan Marshall --- Cat Power --- with cigarette, Bob Dylan tee-shirt (half-on, half-off) and jeans. Lots of jewelry. Hair a mess. But, ah: the jeans are open. And there is a smidgen of hair showing. The hair we puritan New Yorker readers rarely see in the magazine, much less imagine.

Can you hear it? Listen carefully: it's the august Harold Ross, revolving --- slowly, magisterially --- round and round in his grave.

Anyway, I was put in mind of Suzan-Lori Parks' book, not by the picture (although it was a grabber) but rather by something reviewer Hinton Als referred to: that this singer was "a trashed Faulkner heroine whose arias of disillusionment, hope, fantasy, bitterness and understanding are played out in 4/4 time and in a distinctly American syntax." It made me think of Willa Mae Beede and Getting Mother's Body.

Mother lies in her grave behind the Pink Flamingo Motel in LaJunta and daughter Billy (spelled "Billy") Beede has just gotten knocked up by a hustler named Snipes. He has promised to marry Billy and so she takes the bus up to where he lives and the first thing she runs into are his wife and children. Without hesitation, she burns the wedding dress she's just bought. Right in front of the Mrs.

What to do about the babe in the oven? Rumor is that mother Willa Mae was buried with a diamond ring on her finger and a pearl necklace around her neck, so Billy steals Dill's car to go to LaJunta and dig up mum or rather the jewelry so she could have the money for an abortion.

Now Dill Smiles raises pigs, was Willa Mae's lover ... only it turns out that Dill is what people in Lincoln, Texas call a "bulldagger, dyke, lezzy, what-have-yous." She also scarcely ever smiles even though that's her name. Dill spends time in the men's barbershop and talks man-talk about her pigs and the weather and everyone knows the truth about her but they don't bring it up because she's taller than anyone there and is a dead shot with her pistol.

When Billy was a child, she used to be dragged all over the country with Willa Mae looking for a man and also looking for what she calls a "Hole."

    Everybody's got a Hole. Ain't nobody ever lived who don't got a Hole in them somewheres. When I say Hole you know what I'm talking about, dontcha? Soft spot, sweet spot, opening, blind spot, Itch, Gap, call it what you want but I call it a Hole.

When things get tough, Billy finds herself looking for peoples' Holes, especially when she and June Flowers Beede and Roosevelt Beede and one of her cousins take off for the Pink Flamingo Auto Court in LaJunta, New Mexico, Pop. 30, to dig up Willa Mae's body and retrieve the diamonds and pearls. What they don't know is that when lover Dill Sweet buried her, she also relieved the body of the jewelry, figuring Willa Mae wouldn't need it where she was going.

§     §     §

What a pleasure it is to put oneself into the hands of a writer who, for a change, knows how to spin tales and hook words together. Ms. Parks weaves it all so fine, stories of the five or so major characters and the thirty or so minor characters, all brought together so deftly that there's never a moment where one isn't either goggle-eyed at the details and the dialogue, or agog with anticipation over what's to come next. These people --- most of them supremely poor Blacks living in segregated Texas, 1963 --- are droll and dry and so very feisty.

On her way to find Snipes, on the bus, Billy meets Myrna. Billy is pregnant, so she makes continual references to her "husband." But Myrna knows. It's uncanny the way the author sets up the dialogue to bring Myrna to life, with all the subtleties, words unspoken, the looks. The reader, for the first time, through Billy's eyes and words, begins to see the two of them (and the truth):

    "I met my Dale at the rodeo," [Myrna] says. Her voice goes lower, more private. "It was love but not true love. You know what I'm talking about, dontcha?"

    "Me and my husband, Clifton, we got true love," I says.

    "Yr lucky," she says, "All me and Dale got is five kids."

    "Five is luckier than none," I says...

    "Five is luckier than six," Myrna says. There's a meaning to what she's saying but I don't catch it. I'm looking out the window staring hard at the land going by and trying not to look at her big face in the reflection. She's talking to the back of my head...

    "You gonna tell Myrna yr name?"

    "Depends on whatchu gonna use it for," I says and she throws her head back and hoots.

    "Keep yr voice down," a man riding towards the front says.

    "Keep yr shirt on, honey," Myrna calls back. We giggle together.

    "Billy Beede," I says.

    "Got a nice ring to it. BB. Like a gun. Fast." She glances at my belly. "I didn't mean nothing by that," she murmurs.

    "I got a husband," I says.

    "Course you do. Pretty gal like you. Course you got a husband."

§     §     §

Ms. Parks obviously grew up on Faulkner. The men in the barber shop slip up, call Billy's lover "Snopes." The lay-out --- a chapter given to each character, switching back and forth so we can see the changing world through their eyes --- is lifted bodily from As I Lay Dying. But instead of Addie Bundren inside the house  dying as Cash builds her coffin, author Parks has Billy wanting to dig up her long-dead mother so she'll have the wherewithal to do away with Baby Snipe (or Snopes) growing inside of her. And Snipe's trade, when he isn't seducing the young and the innocent, is building coffins.

The characters have that Faulknerian feel: trashed lives growing out of grueling poverty, with "disillusionment, hope, fantasy, bitterness and understanding." And the structure is perfect for what Parks has set out to do: each character gets a page or two to set the record straight, even if the next character will skew it and the one after that one will turn it on its head.

Come to think of it, this block-building style of writing probably goes past Faulkner, through Joyce, reaching all the way back to the Elizabethans. In those days, they called it "soliloquy," but it served the same purpose: to let us inside a character's mind so we can see how much they are fabricating. For the world. Or themselves.

If RALPH were giving out 1 - 5 stars in our reviews (five being topnotch), Getting Mother's Body would show

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--- Lolita Lark


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