Terry McMillan's dysfunctional village

January 07, 2001|By Jean Thompson | By Jean Thompson,Sun Staff

"A Day Late and a Dollar Short," by Terry McMillan. Viking. 432 pages. 25.95.

Dear Ms. McMillan: Girlfriend, you must be running out of material. You done wore out the mama thang and the sister thang already. So now you up in everybody's family business: outside children, aunties hooked on prescription pills, stepfathers with dirty minds. But what's up with all this forgiveness stuff? Chile, you in love -- or therapy?

I predict that "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" will be a best seller and a made-for-TV movie. It's better than the Jerry Springer show, with relatively little action but lots of confessions involving no-good men and the flawed women who love them. And who better to rescue these children from themselves than the heroine they adore: Mom.

So if you can't stand the heat, get out of Viola Price's kitchen. She is every Mom, stoic in the face of disaster, the all-seeing, tongue-clucking, mind-reading meddler who dispenses sass, wit, advice and invective. She wants nothing more than to braid back together the straying, fraying ends of her extended family and push them to be their best. Her own flaws are reflected in the mirror of her children's lives; she ignores her failing health and marriage too long while she's preoccupied with everybody's business.

Who has time with three daughters and their failed relationships, a jail-bound son, six growing-up-fast grandchildren, and an estranged husband? Her family can't stand each other, but they love each other to death. Smart? Talented? Of course, but thwarting their own success. One's an alcoholic and one's a pill popper. One has married a pedophile who molests her daughter. Another discovers her husband's being sued for child support. A college-bound grandson gets the minister's daughter pregnant. A better title for this novel might be, "It Takes a Dysfunctional Village."

Intuitive Viola often thinks to herself what should be said out loud. But families keep secrets, and Mama is the central clearinghouse. Her day will come, and I shouldn't reveal how as it would spoil the story. Just know that the ending unites Viola's family for a hard-to-believe, cathartic, tearful, in-your-face scene that outs everyone's secrets and settles their scores. Can't we all just get along? It's never too late to try. Yes, Mama! Thank you! the children cry, and promise to get together at the holidays.

Arrrgh. I won't pass this along to my friends: I find it depressing and too calculated to pluck heartstrings.

This novel also has some of McMillan's best and worst writing: As the tale shifts perspective through the cast of characters, readers easily get lost. Who's speaking? If she's intending to disorient, she succeeds. I think instead that she is so into her multitude of characters, she forgets that the readers need more cues.

At the same time, McMillan must be applauded for the careful crafting of a complex identity and redemption for Cecil, Viola's long-suffering and straying husband. He's the best thing going in this novel. When he finds his own voice, it's a powerful force. In a book populated by one sorry man after another -- even the male grandchildren disappoint! -- it's refreshing to hear McMillan work through the bonds that hold intact extended African-American families, any families, really.

Just don't forget: Mama has the last word.

Jean Thompson is assistant managing editor at The Sun. She has been a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Hartford Courant and -- for 11 years -- The Sun. She collects African-American historical papers, music, vintage photographs and books.

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