I bought this book when I used to pay attention to the Oprah’s picks for her then contemporary book club. She chose it in 1998 but as I have an American edition I must have bought it in the early noughties, meaning it’s been sitting on my shelves for more than a decade. I think I was attracted to the title more than anything but it turns out there’s a really interesting book behind it, the key theme of which isn’t even mentioned in the blurb…
Ava Johnson has HIV. She begins her story by telling us how people react to knowing you’ve contracted the illness.
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.
At seventeen, Ava left her hometown of Idlewild for Detroit, four hours north. Two years there and she was ready to move on. She went to Atlanta, ‘the place to be…if you were young, black and had any sense’. There she set up her own salon which won her a number of business accolades. However, once people knew she’d been diagnosed with HIV, they started cancelling appointments. A letter sent to them explaining what having HIV meant made no difference so she sold up and decided she was moving to San Francisco. We meet her before that move as she goes back to Idlewild to spend the summer with her sister, Joyce.
Joyce was widowed two years previously in a freak accident. With the insurance settlement, she’s quit her job as a caseworker with the Department of Family and Children’s Services to work with a youth group at her church. She’s started the group because:
“These girls haven’t got a chance…There aren’t any jobs and there aren’t going to be any. They’re stuck up here in the middle of the damn woods, watching talk shows, smoking crack, collecting welfare, and having babies.”
The problem is a new pastor’s arrived, Reverend Anderson, and his wife, Miss Gerry, thinks the discussion topics at Joyce’s meetings are inappropriate.
There’s a further complication in the form of Joyce’s husband’s best friend, Eddie Jefferson.
The exploits of wild Eddie Jefferson were beyond legendary. He had done everything from getting into a fistfight with the basketball coach to threatening his father with a shotgun for beating his mother. He drank, smoked reefer before I even understood that there was such a thing, and had two babies by two different women before he got out of high school.
Eddie picks Ava up from the airport and she ends up having dinner at his house. Not before they’ve stopped to buy vodka though and Eddie’s intervened in some domestic violence played out in front of the liquor store.
A number of threads interweave as the novel progresses and a host of dark themes are explored: drug addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, child neglect, murder.
Three things prevent this novel from descending into abject misery. The first is that the plotting’s tight and the pace of events is fairly fast. I might even go as far as to describe this as a page-turner, as odd as that might seem. The second is the relationship that grows between Ava and Eddie. This brings some hope into the novel and enables Cleage to discuss and demonstrate life after a HIV diagnosis. The third is Ava’s voice and the tone of the novel. She’s smart, straight-talking and doesn’t view any subject as taboo.
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is a gem of a novel. I’m glad I picked it off the shelf after all this time.