Get into the Groove

Being an effete literary snob means A Day Late will be the first Terry McMillan novel you'll read from cover to cover. Especially if you've trusted sisterfriends who complained of McMillan's books being unbelievable (Mama), less than revealing about female friendship (Waiting to Exhale), and unreadable (How Stella Got Her Groove Back). McMillan seems to have stepped up her game, her literary funksmanship, with this book. Funny, finely crafted, profound, and pathos-ridden when it needs to be—breezy when it does not—A Day Late has my unlettered vote as her best book yet.

There's a vague resemblance to the movie Soul Food here—divided and diversely complicated black family comes together over the sickness and death of its matriarch—but McMillan brings far more bite to the table than that hyperactive weepy. She's got a mean-ass stock of mother wit. Finding out that her son may have gotten a no-count white girl pregnant, one character wonders whether she shouldn't "cut a few inches off Dingus's little immature dick, since he has obviously not been using the condoms I put in his drawer and backpack. . . . I don't care what color she is. But dumb is one color I don't like and have a hard time tolerating. It's a slow mind that tests my patience."

McMillan fires off rounds of mordant moral and social observation here that are damn near Whartonian in their dissection of African American manners and appearances:

I just nodded a hello to him and then to that mushroom-looking wench he was sitting next to . . . who need to make up her mind which hairstyle she really interested in and settle on one instead of the three or four I saw. Look like finger waves was pressing against the left side of her head. The top was part ancient Jheri Curl and part reddish-blond braids that hung down over some of the waves. Hell, maybe they was supposed to be a waterfall, I don't know. But the right side was cornrows that had been wove with purple yarn through 'em. What would possess her to do this to herself? And this was only the front view.

A Day Late is contemporary African American naturalism at its best. Stanley Crouch used to complain that Toni Morrison's books didn't reflect the breadth of her social experience; he'd have no problem with McMillan, who gives us a panorama of black women who run multicultural catering businesses, New Age boutiques, and Afrocentric psychotherapy practices, and brothers who run barbecue joints and laundromats and thrive as landscape architects.

This is largely a book about good, hardworking, sharp-tongued women and the simpleminded-to-slimy sorts of men they choose. It is also a treatise on the multitude of ways a marriage can go sour—alienation of affection, alcoholism, incest, lies, alibis, and most of all, the triflingness and ingratitude of brothers:

"All right," he says, and turns away like his bunions hurt. Good enough for his old ass. Sometimes I wish I had a giant vacuum cleaner so I could suck up all the stupid men in the world and put 'em in a big hole and bury 'em in hot mud and not let not a one of 'em out until they realize that the women they married—the ones that stuck by their sorry asses all them years—is the ones that truly loved 'em, and even though these new and improved models may give 'em a quick thrill, it won't last longer than the time it takes to get 'em off a few times.

As finely apoplectic as the riffs are, the author is also working the form here. The book alternates first-person chapters featuring the inner lives of the six major characters: big mama Viola Price; her estranged husband, Cecil; their ne'er-do-well soused louse of a son, Lewis; superachieving oldest daughter Paris; whimsical and helpless-without-a-man Janelle; bitter but well-married Charlotte. All the children have children; all the daughters are in their midthirties and must confront an existential crisis or two.

Divorcée Paris is a successful caterer who has become addicted to the painkillers she began taking after her breast implants. Charlotte finds out from opening her husband's IRS letter that their return check is being held to pay back child support for an indiscretion of a decade earlier. Janelle discovers that her second husband, George, has been molesting her 12-year-old daughter. Daddy Cecil walks out of his marriage with Viola to take up with Brenda, a twentysomething welfare mother with three kids, who is set to bear him his first child in 35 years. Brother Lewis is that quintessential class-A fuck-up of a black man whom McMillan spares not a drop of her acid-dipped pen in ridiculing.

McMillan has a true comic gift and a deft way of moving her story along, which keeps A Day Late from turning into a potboiler. This is very much a character-driven book and her interior monologue technique has developed to the point where each of the book's first-person voices becomes distinct. McMillan can suck teeth on paper like nobody's business, but more impressive are her navigations of African American psychodrama. Terry knows denial. Terry knows self-deception. Terry knows about irresponsibility, the appetite for destruction, and the ways we go about willing them into being. For all the snaps and comeback lines (Black female vernacular poetry by any other name), she has taken a bead here on bigger fish than breath-holding girlfriends and the lost groove. A Day Late sticks a size 16 boot all up in the common communication breakdown that occurs in those black families where no one trusts anyone else with their pain—and for good reason, since baring wounds leaves you open to attack.

Although her novel is far more sarcastic, populist, and neat than Jeffery Renard Allen's gothic, dystopian, Faulknerian Rails Under My Back, McMillan is mining very similar terrain with respect to African American families—where there is love, marriage, money, and adult responsibility, there can be little space provided for emotional honesty, criticism, or vulnerability. Like Allen (and Zadie Smith), McMillan is tapping into zeitgeist territory for 21st-century Black literature, recognizing the prickly challenge of exhuming our folks' interpersonal traumas and dysfunctions and providing readers a complex, rewarding space where everybody's dirty laundry gets paraded in the street and then spanked with love.

McMillan's sugarcoated Thanksgiving Day ending is, alas, made for Hollywood, as are some of the sudden romances, lottery wins, and plot-serving pregnancies, but hey, stranger things have coincided. The multigenerational scars and contusions she unveils before arriving at that trumped-up gathering make A Day Late as unblushing a depiction of how rundown, tired, and in need of rejuvenation African American families are as you'll find this side of opening up some Baldwin.

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