Of course Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of 2001’s ”Topdog/Underdog,” can write a mean patch of dialogue. And the spit flies in her debut novel, Getting Mother’s Body. The author’s got her tongue well wrapped around the lazy drawl of 1963 Texas: ”’I’m getting married tomorrow,’ she says. ‘Not to my husband you ain’t,’ I says. ‘Get yr narrow dusty hussy ass out my yard.”’
But the real treat here is watching Parks experiment with setting. The story of the beaten-down Beede family unfolds in a cluster of two-bit towns full of ”folks on porches desperate from the heat, the kids and dogs all lolling in the shade.” Life in this drowsy, flat land is rough on Billy Beede. She lives with her uncle and one-legged aunt in a trailer behind their filling station. Fired from the House of Style beauty salon, she goes and falls for a cheating man and gets herself knocked up. ”The life of a Negro gal is cheap. The life of a Negro gal with a baby in her belly and no ring on her finger is cheaper.” Legend has it that her dead mother, Willa Mae, shares a coffin with a bounty of jewels. So the Beedes pile into a stolen pickup and hit the road for Willa Mae’s grave in LaJunta, Ariz., picking up stray relatives on the way.
Their misadventures are relayed in alternating voices, from Billy to Willa Mae’s jilted lesbian lover to the white deputy who pulls over Billy’s uncle and cousin on the Texas highway for driving fast in a shiny car. A master of pitch and mood, Parks occasionally veers off her novelistic course. Her story struggles a bit to find its stride; for all the brilliant scenes, the connective tissue sometimes lacks thrust. But how to resist a novel with such a lively family, and language, at its heart?