The subject matter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' debut novel, Getting Mother's Body, might summon comparisons to Faulkner at his most outlandish. Parks' deliciously demented story concerns the Beede family of Lincoln, Texas, and their journey to dig up the body of Willa Mae, sister to failed preacher Roosevelt (also known as Teddy) and mother to the pregnant and unmarried Billy. One reason for the exhumation is the upcoming construction of a supermarket on the very spot in La Junta, Arizona, where Willa Mae rests. The other reason for the undertaking is the family's desire to retrieve the jewels she was buried with and sell them to fund various projects.

Each chapter of this starkly original tale set in the segregationist South of 1963 is narrated by a different character in rich Southern dialect; even dead Willa Mae speaks, mostly in blues-flavored lyrics. Unlike Parks' current play, which has an unprintable name, the conflicts in her novel are presented almost subtly, and her people are, at their core, kindhearted. Grouchiness can be chalked up, in Billy's case, to being 16, pregnant and jilted, and in the case of Dill Smiles, Willa Mae's lover, to finding that Billy has stolen her truck to go to Arizona.

Getting Mother's Body is, among other things, a road novel, as Dill pursues Billy on her journey to the burial grounds. Other characters in the offbeat cast include Laz Jackson, who pines after Billy, and June, Roosevelt's warmhearted, one-legged wife who helps him run a shabby gas station after his church hits the skids. Their quietly loving relationship is an endearing part of the book. Improbably, but believably, the madness culminates in not one but two surprise happy endings. "We all got dreams," says Roosevelt Beede. An impressive fiction debut, Getting Mother's Body is, at its core, a celebration of the lives of poor people who dream. Arlene McKanic is a writer in Jamaica, New York.

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