What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
(Avon, $12.00, R) ISBN 0-380-79487-X
"What looks like crazy on an ordinary day looks a lot like love if you catch it in the moonlight.

I almost made a clean getaway. I was halfway through Pearl Cleage's first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, when the book was picked as an Oprah's Book Club selection. If you think reading a romance novel with a clinch cover in public attracts attention, try reading an "Oprah book" uninterrupted.

The most frequently asked question was: "Is that a good book?" My unequivocal answer is "Yes." I don't know why the talk show diva recommended What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, but I can tell you why I do.

Pearl Cleage has distinguished herself as a feminist, essayist and playwright. Her books, "Mad at Miles: A Black Woman's Guide to Truth" and "Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot" deal with the truths about our society many have preferred to ignore. I like her in-your-face style that doesn't add a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Like me, Cleage is a native Detroiter and Idlewild, Michigan, where her novel is set, is a real place, an important place in African-American history and culture to members of our generation.

Long before passage of federal public accommodations laws, when Blacks were denied access to many popular vacation destinations, resort towns like Idlewild catered to those in search of a summer respite. Churches, cottages, motels, nightclubs, restaurants and other businesses in Idlewild thrived. Famous residents included entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker, boxer Joe Louis, novelist Charles Chesnutt and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first successful open heart surgery. The famous, the infamous and obscure primarily from Detroit and Chicago frequented Idlewild.

When integration and the 1964 Civil Rights Act provided Blacks with more vacation options, Idlewild and similar resorts began to decline. The Idlewild of Pearl Cleage's novel is a shell of its former self. The town is afflicted by urban maladies: gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, unemployment and indifference. The kids are angry. Men are shell-shocked. Women are alone...

Ava Johnson grew up in Idlewild with her sister, Joyce. After ten years in Atlanta, where she ran a successful hair salon, Ava has come home to spend time with Joyce before moving on to San Francisco. Like the town, Ava is angry, shell-shocked and alone. She is also HIV-positive.

She is reacquainted with a childhood family friend, Eddie Jefferson. Ava and Eddie are immediately attracted to each other. She is hesitant because of her illness. He is reluctant to reveal his secret. Eddie is a convicted murderer and has spent time in prison.

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is essentially a love story between Ava and Eddie. It is also hard-hitting commentary about religious hypocrisy, sexual responsibility, fear, faith and empowerment. A great deal of that commentary is provided through a subplot involving Joyce's struggle for the hearts and minds of teenage girls in the church "Sewing Circus" and her custody battle for an abandoned crack baby.

The primary story and focus are raw. The R-rating is for more for the novel's language than its sexual content. An encounter between Ava and Eddie, is perhaps the most erotic and touching scene I've read in quite sometime. Cleage's talent as a playwright give us moving, three-dimensional scenes.

It is important to note that What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is a love story, not a romance. Even a promising relationship with Eddie cannot change Ava's prognosis. We are reminded that unless and until there is a cure for AIDS, there will be no happy endings.

--Gwendolyn Osborne

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