Faulkner gets an African-American rewrite in this first novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (Topdog/Underdog, etc.).
It’s July 1963. Sixteen-year-old Billy Beede has been living in Lincoln, Texas, with her Uncle Roosevelt and Aunt June for six years, ever since her reckless, high-living mother Willa Mae died in Arizona. Willa Mae’s lesbian lover, Dill Smiles, claims to have buried her with a pearl necklace and a diamond ring, and the grave is about to be plowed up and paved over by a supermarket developer. When pregnant Billy discovers that her lover is married, she heads for Arizona to unearth the jewelry to pay for an abortion. The angry teenager professes to have no feelings for her “liar and cheat” of a mother, but, as she employs Willa Mae’s con-artist tricks to make her way west, Billy begins uncovering a deeper meaning in what Willa Mae called “The Hole,” a quality that she identified in people only so “she’d know how to take them.” All the characters here have Holes: Roosevelt has lost his church and his vocation as a minister; he and June can’t have children; Dill endured Willa Mae cheating on her with men; neighbor Laz Jackson watches his beloved Billy dally with a smooth-talking adulterer; Roosevelt’s widowed cousin Star struggles with bill collectors and the shame of not being able to keep son Homer in college. Playing to her strengths as a dramatist, Parks constructs the narrative as a series of first-person monologues, including several blues-drenched soliloquies by the defunct Willa Mae. Echoes of As I Lay Dying, the characters’ concerns swirl around their relationships with a dead woman whose decayed body offers an uncomfortable reminder of what awaits them all. The muted happy ending doesn’t have Faulkner’s biblical grandeur, but we’re glad to see Parks’s hard-pressed men and women get a break.
More conventional in form and less excitingly engaged with American history than her plays, but good enough to cause hope that more may come.