"All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So begins Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece, ANNA KARENINA.
Over a century later, this platitude still holds true when you look at Terry McMillan's latest fictional family, the Prices. A fast read laced with hilarious moments, A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT, Terry McMillan's fifth novel, is a departure from her earlier books. This novel is about the love and bond between adult family members as opposed to between sistah friends and between men and women. It is also about family falling apart, and family coming back together. As such, this novel is a testament to the love between parents and their children, brothers and sisters.
Through the literary device of the talk story, we explore the ups and downs of "the Price family." At the opening, everyone is at odds with each other. Viola and her husband Cecil have separated after a tumultuous, 38-year marriage. Viola's second oldest daughter Charlotte and she are not speaking. Viola is troubled by a situation with her youngest daughter Janel. The only son, Lewis, is an alcoholic, in and out of jail and alienated from the family because he feels he is the "failure" among his middle-class sisters. Paris, who admittedly is living out her mother's dream, is the only one at peace with Viola. But even Paris is harboring secrets. Meanwhile, Charlotte is not speaking to Paris because she feels Viola and Paris triangulate against her. The whole family is in turmoil.
Viola Price, the mother, is a feisty, die-hard Black woman. A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT opens with Viola lying in an ICU hospital bed in Las Vegas after a serious asthma attack. Although she has tubes down her throat, she is conscious. Full of a mother's regret and feeling, Viola is evaluating her life. She has not traveled, as she had once hoped. She hopes it is not too late.
At the same time, Viola has a mother's intuition and insight into all of her adult children's problems, even when they are in denial themselves. Call it the mother's honing device, call it mother's love, but Viola can see thousands of miles away into her children's and grandchildren's hearts; and her keen observations will make you laugh out loud. Her colorful use of Ebonics made me recognize the strength and power of language within the Black community. (My 24-year-old daughter read Viola's chapter and said, "She sounds like you.")
In the set up, after each character is introduced, he or she is sandbagged by some major dilemma or conflict. Using six first-person viewpoints, one for each family member, A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT explores many contemporary concerns, such as single parenthood, divorce, incest, molestation, alcoholism, homosexuality, and prescription drug addiction. McMillan's writing rings true to readers because it is honest.
As a former social worker working with families, I learned that, like other families, African American families often have a "Black Sheep." However, after the 1980s, with malt liquor and the advent of crack becoming major problems in the inner cities, you sometimes began to find two or more Black Sheep within one family. It is not unusual to meet a family and find out that members of the same family range from a Ph.D. to a drug dealer to a person sitting on Death Row. At any rate, "The Black Sheep" is usually shunned by the others, made to feel inferior, and often becomes the family secret.
Contrary to popular belief, slavery has cast a long reaching shadow on the following generations. In other words, being the offspring of former slaves yesterday influences Black family dynamics today. The old system often made the woman wear the pants in a family, even when there was a man in the home. On the surface, Lewis is "The Black Sheep," or the scapegoat; the girls have fared better than the male counterpart of the family. The Prices are a microcosm of this syndrome, and this is where much of the conflict in this novel arises.
In spite of the backlash and the hoopla over WAITING TO EXHALE and its so-called negative portrayal of black men, these flawed male characters are revisited in this book. However, the male characters in this storyline are better developed, thus more sympathetic, because we learn their motivations and vulnerabilities. Since our first loves begin in our families (or in our lack thereof), we can understand why Cecil and Lewis are the way they are. And we can even see where the myth of the Super Strong Black Woman psychologically frozen in a state of ultra-independence gets its birth, too.
Given the history, the family's dysfunction is part of what I call paying the "Black Taxes." Simply put, within one family, some fare better than others and can withstand the vicissitudes of racism in this country. But across the board, no one Black in America is exempt from the experience of racism. In this book, we see some of the fallout.
Otherwise, the problems faced in the book are universal to all families. One of the themes in A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT is that of opportunities missed. The subtext deals with family secrets. Each one of the Price children wants the other sibling to think their family is doing well and not having any husband/children/man problems.
Unlike WAITING TO EXHALE, McMillan does not identify the speaker in each chapter. However, after I got into the book, I had no problem distinguishing the voices. They were like a discordant symphony, each one more jarring than the last. The son, Lewis, whining about how no one understands him, has to learn to take responsibility for his own life. Paris, the oldest, who takes on everyone's problem, is in denial about her Type A, unbalanced life. Janel has to face her own blindness and failure to protect her child within her own home. Charlotte, the resentful one, must face her own insecurities. They must all heal; and it falls on the mother's shoulders to bring them back together.
McMillan's use of language is shown through cultural markers. When Paris tells her mother over the phone, "I love you," and Viola answers, "You ain't said nothing but a word," this means "I love you, too, but I've always had to be tough so I can't say it that way."
Ultimately, it is love that calls each of the members back to the family circle.
Terry McMillan's strong point in her writing is her bare bones use of stream-of-consciousness and her ability to capture the voices of her characters. Like Raymond Carver, the master of omitting description, Terry McMillan's writing style is spare, almost all dialogue broken by interior ruminations and thoughts. By leaving out physical details of these people's physical worlds, it shows how their worlds are limited or uninteresting, even to them. McMillan underscores her characters' reality. You get a sense of the characters' desperations, suffocations, and limitations. Although I like more details, imagery, and setting, this works as part of McMillan's style.
Many African American writers owe it to Terry McMillan's novels for opening up doors for publication and dialogue about Black sexuality and what is going on in middle-class Black America. As a contemporary social critic, McMillan's writing style is original, in spite of the copy cats. Not only has she helped launch the movement in literature for contemporary Black novels, she has played a large role in helping the publishing industry understand that African Americans are reading. For this, I am eternally grateful.
Reviewed by Maxine E. Thompson on January 21, 2011
A Day Late and a Dollar Short