Book Review: A Day Late and a Dollar Short

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by Terry McMillan

    Publication Date: Jan 06, 2004
    List Price: $15.00
    Format: Paperback, 496 pages
    Classification: Fiction
    ISBN13: 9780451211088
    Imprint: NAL
    Publisher: NAL
    Parent Company: NAL

    Read a Description of A Day Late and a Dollar Short

    Read an Excerpt from A Day Late and a Dollar Short

    Book Reviewed by Paige Turner

    The publishing world and the legions of Terry McMillan fans can now officially exhale. McMillan’s long awaited "serious" novel, A Day Late and A Dollar Short, has been released, and it is a solid achievement, and worth the wait since her last novel. The book validates the promise and mastery that McMillan displayed in Mama and in Disappearing Acts. Even DLDS’s no-frills cover design heralds her return as a dedicated, no-nonsense writer.

    In recent years readers, critics and cognoscenti have tried to be disparaging by using the phrase, "A Terry McMillan Book", to imply something as unsubstantial as an Archie comic. But let’s give props where they are due: McMillan’s phenomenal bestsellers paved the way for other writers (many of lesser talent) to bop on down the road of commercial success. While it is true that her initial success was based on black women’s’ hunger for a reflection of themselves, and craziness of their relationships, readers need only look to Mama, McMillan’s first novel, to know that she has always been more than just a writer of "girlfriend", sistah-to-sistah type novels.

    DLDS restores McMillan’s stature as a thoughtful and an insightful commentator on families and relationships, and not just a male bashing schlockmeister. DLDS’ characters so real you wanna shake ’em, kiss ’em, slap ’em, and hug ’em. Many people—male and female—have felt the same frustration as Charlotte when she reflects on her mother, Viola: "Why do I always have to cry when I think about Mama? Probably ’cause I know that, no matter what I do, it ain’t never good enough. Sometimes, when I really think about my family, it feel like we ain’t got nothing in common except blood."

    "… let’s give props where they are due: McMillan’s phenomenal bestsellers paved the way for other writers (many of lesser talent) to bop on down the road of commercial success"

    DLDS chronicles a year in the life of the Price family and has a sweeping scope akin to other family sagas. McMillan’s dialogue especially is gifted, and DLDS’ group conversations and character interplay are particularly well done. Viola is constantly full of malapropisms, calling the stars of the movie Casablanca "Humphrey and Ingmar" [Ingrid], and referring to the decorative pond fish "Koi" as shy (or coy), fish. Father, and reluctant patriarch, Cecil doesn’t ever think — he "thanks". Each character speaks in a way that is realistic and highly individual, from the flighty Janelle to the bitter, calculating Charlotte. And as was the case in Disappearing Acts, the male characters speak in a voice that is as true and authentic as the females, the mark of a writer who has mastered their craft. McMillan dishes up each character’s mentality, and serves it to readers on platters.

    DLDS presents all of the struggles black families currently endure: growing pains from upward mobility; straining to attain higher consciousness and compassion; finding stability in unstable times; freedom from dysfunction; freedom from substance abuse; rearing wholesome children in an increasingly crazy world; doing a balancing act among all of the duties and responsibilities that need to get done; and living with the continuing legacy of a slavery heritage. Some of the dialogue is sexually explicit, and there is an unpleasant, but very necessary, subplot concerning child molestation. The novel has good character development and a good presentation of their interior thinking. When Lewis, the Price family’s perpetual looser and alcoholic, is challenged to a friendly chess game by his estranged son, Jamil, he thinks:

    "It’s about me. I’m just tired of losing. Want to win for a change. Want him to see that I’m smarter than he is. I may not sound like it, but I am. I want him to gain a different level of respect for me when he sees how fast I move, how good I am at battle. I want him to watch his father think and act and make sharp, intelligent decisions. I don’t care if it ’s only on a [chess] board. Because victory can transcend. And victory is power. And if I had to lose to anybody, I just hope it ain’t to my own son."

    DLDS instantly absorbs readers and is easy to read — a page turner. The book successfully presents the point of view of several generations, socio-economic classes and males and females — all within the same family. DLDS presents a world where no one ever grows up — even the grandparents — and everyone remains mired in their own immaturity. Unfortunately McMillan paints a realistic picture of how confused and out-to-lunch many families really are. When Jamil shows up on his father’s doorstep, Lewis probes why he ran away from home:

    "So—why you smoke weed?"
    I don’t know. So I won’t have to think so much."
    "You still getting good grades?"
    "Sorta. I was getting almost straight A’s, but I got two B’s and a C last grading period."
    "It’s the weed, Jamil"
    "I don’t smoke it that much. I was just stressing. Didn’t really care what I got on my report card for a minute, but then I cranked it back up."
    "So Todd hit you and your mama just watched?" 
    "She asked him to stop when she saw that he’d hit me."

    Call it dysfunction. Call it pain. Call it real. Call it a little too close for comfort.

    Each chapter is told from the point of view of the two parents and their four adult offspring and the book spans locations as diverse as Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. A family tree is provided in the inside covers, and it is needed to keep track of several generations going through dozens of divorces. DLDS could have easily been beefed up into six separate novels, for each character has an absorbing and complex story to tell. ’ Oldest daughter Paris is the affluent, professionally successful single mother of a bright and talented son, who she suspects is getting his female classmates in the "family way". This woman of steel turns into a pill popper from the pressure of trying to hold everything in.

    Charlotte, a postal supervisor, is a resentful, uptight, suspicious wife of flawed Al, and mother of two flighty daughters with ADD, and an openly gay son.  Janelle — a space cadet with a one-second attention span — is a married to a cop who molests her daughter from her first marriage. It takes several weeks for Janelle to take action after finding out about her husband’s abuse. This delay is uncomfortable and disappointing, but unfortunately, very real.  Lewis has an IQ of 146 and prospects of zero. A perennial looser, he is an ex con whose ex wife is married to a white guy who wants to adopt their son. He blames all of his problems on "the [white] man".

    As is true in many families no one has anything good to say about anyone else. Among the main characters Lewis and Janelle are the most pitiful. Charlotte’s song of resentment is familiar theme in many families, as is Paris’ superwoman balancing act. Add mother Viola’s irritability (everything gets on her last nerve), and father Cecil’s poor judgment into the mix and McMillan serves up a savory stew of family dysfunction, poor choices and mid life crises. All characters see breaking up as the solution to all problems and sprinkle the threat of divorce around like salt on French fries. While it contains many of her hallmark characteristics, DLDS is not a "Terry McMillan novel", e.g. a "girlfriend" book. Readers who are looking for man-woman, he-said-she-said dynamics will only get a smidgen of this in DLDS.  Readers will see some of themselves in these characters. DLDS will make you think about your self and your family. The ending is a little tacked on, and a "device" is used to wrap everything up, but DLDS’ resolution is none the less valid.

    DLDS is not the long awaited great American novel, nor is it a ground breaking book, but it is a very worthwhile and enjoyable read. McMillan presents just about all of the confusion that exists in African American families, and shoves it right in readers’ faces. All throughout the book her perspective is rooted in understanding and healing — a very good point of view.

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