Ava Johnson has had a decade of wild living in Atlanta and now she's returning to her home town of Idylwild in Michigan, her fabulous career plans in tatters. Ava is certain that Idylwild is the end of the road for her, but instead it turns out to be a new beginning. She falls for Eddie, a tough, but tai-chi-practising, Vietnam veteran; she rediscovers her relationship with her recently widowed sister Joyce; she supports the town's teenage mothers. But Ava also makes enemies. The Reverend and his formidable wife seem determined to drive her out of town. But what secrets are they hiding Pearl Cleage's debut novel is a truly engaging, universal story, and her sparkling voice combines compassion, honesty and warm humour.
After so much contemporary African American fiction that strains to be hip and funny but refuses to look seriously at the problems faced by real black people, first-time novelist Cleage, without succumbing to didacticism, delivers a work of intelligence and integrity. Fiery Ava Johnson's fast life as the owner of an Atlanta beauty parlor comes to a sudden end when she discovers that she is HIV positive. Shunned by her peers in Atlanta, Ava decides to start a new life in more broad-minded San Franciscobut first she visits her older sister, Joyce, at their childhood home in Idlewild, Mich. A former all-black resort, Idlewild is now just a small rural town crumbling fast under the weight of big city problems. Soon Ava's visit extends into something more permanent as she joins Joyce's efforts to teach teenage mothers. When one of the mothers abandons her baby, Joyce and Ava are granted temporary guardianship. Meanwhile, Ava meets Eddie, a tender-yet-tough introvert who has conquered his own demons and is willing to help Ava tackle hers. Cleage pays serious attention to problems that face young African Americans, including AIDS, teenage motherhood, joblessness, crack, low self-esteem and lack of sex education. What is even more impressive is her ability to work all this into an engaging plot with witty prose that's wonderfully free of clichs. Cleage may be accused of trying to squeeze too much into the novel's last few pages, but it's a tiny flaw, especially since it helps produce a fitting climax to a memorable tale. (Dec.) -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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William Morrow Paperbacks
December 31, 1999
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Excerpt from What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
I'm sitting at the bar in the airport, minding my own business, trying to get psyched up for my flight, and I made the mistake of listening to one of those TV talk shows. They were interviewing some women with what the host kept calling full blown AIDS. As opposed to half-blown AIDS, I guess. There they were, weeping and wailing and wringing their hands, wearing their prissy little Laura Ashley dresses and telling their edited-for-TV life stories.
The audience was eating it up, but it got on my last nerve. The thing is, half these women are lying. More than half. They get diagnosed and all of a sudden they're Mother Teresa. I can't be positive! It's impossible! I'm practically a Virgin! Bull.... They got it just like I got it f...... men.
That's not male bashing either. That's the truth. Most of us got it from the boys. Which is, when you think about it, a pretty good argument for cutting men loose, but if I could work up a strong physical reaction to women, I would already be having sex with them. I'm not knocking it. I'm just saying I can't be a witness. Too many breasts in one place to suit me.
I try to tune out the almost-a-virgins, but they're going on and on and now one is really sobbing and all of a sudden I get it. They're just going through the purification ritual. This is how it goes: First, you have to confess that you did nasty, disgusting sex stuff with multiple partners who may even have been of your same gender. Or you have to confess that you like to shoot illegal drugs into your veins and sometimes you use other people's works when you want to get high and you came unprepared. Then you have to describe the sin you have confessed in as much detail as you can remember. Names, dates, places, faces. Specific sexual acts. Quantity and quality of orgasms. What kind of dope you shot. What park you bought it in. All the down and dirty. Then, once your listeners have been totally freaked out by what you've told them, they get to decide how much sympathy, attention help, money, and understanding you're entitled to based on how disgusted they are.
I'm not buying into that. I don't think anything I did was bad enough for me to earn this as the payback, but it gets rough out here sometimes. If you're not a little kid, or a heterosexual movie star's doomed but devoted wife, or a hemophiliac who got it from a tainted transfusion, or a straight white woman who can prove she's a virgin with a dirty dentist, you're not eligible for any no-strings sympathy.
The truth is, people are usually relieved. It always makes them feel better when they know the specifics of your story. You can see their faces brighten up when your path is one they haven't traveled. That's why people keep asking me if I know who I got it from. Like all they'd have to do to ensure their safety is cross this specific guy's name off their list of acceptable sexual partners the same way you do when somebody starts smoking crack no future here. But I always tell them the truth I have no idea. That's when they frown and give me one last chance to redeem myself. If I don't know who, do I at least know how many
By that time I can't decide if I'm supposed to be sorry about having had a lot of sex or sorry I got sick from it. And what difference does it make at this point anyway It's like lying about how much you loved the rush of the nicotine just because now you have lung cancer.