In 1983, Gloria Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, won the American Book Award for First Fiction. Since then Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor have become the triumvirate to whom most other black female writers are compared.
Although critics hold her in high esteem, Naylor has never received the level of popular recognition that Walker and Morrison have. That hasn’t stopped her from producing consistently interesting, if occasionally flawed, fiction (Linden Hills, Mama Day). In this, her fourth novel, she has hung on to the mystical streak that runs through her work, but she has abandoned the ornate Morrisonesque language that marred her earlier novels and settled into her own voice — and quite a voice it is.
Bailey’s Cafe is a sleazy little dive on the edge of nowhere, run by a guy who answers to the name of Baile wife, Nadine. They specialize in bad food and lost hopes, catering to a series of vividly drawn characters, all of whom have come to the end of a bitter road. Each spins out his or her story — some almost gothic in their horror, some edgily amusing — in a riveting, blues-structure narrative. There’s Sadie, who tried to win her abusive mother’s love by being the best, cleanest girl in the world. And Eve, who runs a bordello that provides a home for lost women and solace for the desperate men. And Jesse Bell, who pays a horrible price for stepping out of her class. And Miss Maple, who, in the book’s most darkly humorous vignette, tells his unnerving tale of trying to make it as a black man in corporate America. (You have to read it to find out why he’s called ”Miss.”)
Bailey’s Cafe doesn’t have a conventional plot, moving instead from tale to tale just as you might hear them if you were sitting in the cafe. Each voice rings separate and distinct, from Miss Maple’s erudite, educated tones to Jesse Bell’s tough-girl colloquialisms. The novel’s least successful section deals with the horror of clitoridectomy, the same surgery that scars the protagonist of Alice Walker’s recent Possessing the Secret of Joy. The young Mariam has suffered this brutal operation and become pregnant afterwards. The birth of her child offers the faintest hope of redemption for the denizens of Bailey’s. Unfortunately, Mariam remains a symbol, never becoming as vivid as the other habitues.
Mariam’s thinness as a character is a minor flaw in what is otherwise a dazzling novel. When you enter Bailey’s Cafe, you won’t leave without being touched by the wonder and horror that lie there — nor can you fail to be impressed by Naylor’s ability to show it plain. A-