Disappearing Acts

How Stella Got Her Groove Back

A Day Late and a Dollar Short
by Terry McMillan
(Viking Press, $24.95, R) ISBN 0-670-89676-4
Author Terry McMillan is justifiably credited with creating new opportunities for African-American writers in all genres with the success of her novel, Waiting to Exhale. McMillan’s success has spawned a proliferation of novels in the Exhale mode - groups of women lamenting the lack of love and the availability of good men in their lives. It’s a phenomenon that a newspaper article once called “Their Eyes Were Watching Terry McMillan.” Not to be outdone, Black men got into the act and a subgenre often referred to as “Brotherman fiction” has emerged. Terry McMillan’s influence on contemporary fiction is both continuous and undeniable.

A Day Late and a Dollar Short is Terry McMillan’s first novel in more than four years. Like many of her previous work, the book not only celebrates dysfunction, it raises it to an art form. As I finished the book, I was hard-pressed to describe what it was about, so I read it again.

At its core, A Day Late and A Dollar Short is about family - good, bad and indifferent - and its lasting influences on its members both individually and collectively. “Friends come and go, but family is forever . . . you don't have to like your kinfolk, but accept them - faults and all - because they're your flesh and blood.” It is also about measuring up to others' expectations and often coming up short. And, in the final analysis, it is all about love, however one chooses to define and express that love.

A Day Late and a Dollar Short is a story of family secrets, tragedies and triumphs. It is the story of Viola and Cecil Price and their four adult children. Several years ago, the Prices left Chicago to open a barbecue joint in Las Vegas. “The Shack” has fallen on hard times that include internal and external theft. The dream, like the Prices’ relationship has deteriorated. Cecil and Viola are separated. He has taken up residence with a younger, pregnant, single mother in a Las Vegas housing project. When the novel begins, 55-year-old Viola is recovering from the latest in a series of increasingly serious asthma attacks.

Viola compares her chronic medical condition to her chronic relationship with her family and muses: “It's a miracle I can breathe at all.” The same can be said for the Price family suffocating under Viola’s reign and dramas of their own making. The Prices will never be confused with television’s warm and fuzzy Black Huxtable family. The Price family portrait is not pretty. And, perhaps, that is McMillan’s point.

A Day Late and a Dollar Short touches on issues of rape, incest, crime, teen pregnancy, and homosexuality. The novel is populated by child molesters, adulterers and ne’er do wells. McMillan's metaphors of chronic illness and dysfunction extend beyond the Price family to include the general state of Black America.

The organization of the novel drove me to distraction. The novel is told in the first-person voice of six Price family members. While alternative chapters worked well in Disappearing Acts, where there were only two characters and, to an extent in Waiting to Exhale it is a nightmare in this novel. The run-on sentences and conversational style many readers abhorred in How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a walk in the park by comparison. McMillan has consolidated those styles while trying to juggle the voices of the six main characters within this 36-chapters novel. It can be confusing, to say the least. The R rating is more for language. There is also a brief eye-averting child molestation scene.

Terry McMillan's long-awaited fifth novel is a very disappointing and very weak three-heart read that frankly is A Day Late and a Dollar Short.

--Gwendolyn Osborne

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