Stephanie Zacharek reviews Sapphire's novel "Push".

Published June 14, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the subtler, smarter points made by "Push," the first novel by the writer known simply as Sapphire, is that the good intentions of well-meaning liberals don't amount to much in the face of real poverty and suffering. Which makes it that much more exasperating when the ultimate message of the book devolves to the trite slogan "Knowledge is power," the same kind of bumper-sticker feel-goodism that kindhearted liberals cling to when they don't want to have to think too hard.

Precious Jones is a 16-year-old from Harlem who suffers enough strife to fill six first novels: she's pregnant with her second child by her father (the first was born with Down Syndrome when Precious was 12); she's abused, sexually and emotionally, by her mother; and she's HIV positive. When she's thrown out of school because of her pregnancy, a sympathetic administrator gets her into an alternative school, where it's discovered that she can't read. She becomes inspired by her teacher (the unfortunately named Blue Rain), and before long she's reading "The Color Purple" and writing not-too-terrible Langston Hughes-style poetry. But if Blue Rain is an inspiration to Precious, she's a pain in the ass to us: she tells her troubled but eager students that the longest journey begins with a single step, and no doubt they really need to hear it -- it's just that we don't. What's worse, Sapphire gives Precious a voice that's part heightened urban African-American dialect and part speech impediment, and it just comes off like a stunt.

All of which is a shame, because Sapphire has enough skill to make you feel something for Precious. Her turns of phrase are often hilarious and sometimes surprisingly moving. Precious doesn't mince words in describing her cruel, obese mother: "She ain' circus size yet but she getting there." And in one passage, she recalls how, when she gave birth to her first child on her kitchen floor, a kind Hispanic paramedic coached her and called her "Preshecita": "And always after that I look for someone with his face and eyes in Spanish people. He coffee-cream color, good hair. I remember that." "Push" resonates when Sapphire's working the language -- too bad she spends so much time pushing the buttons.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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