AT 'Bailey's Cafe,' stories and healing flow freely

September 20, 1992|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

BAILEY'S CAFE.

Gloria Naylor.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

200 pages. $21.

Call him Bailey though that, he says, is not his name. But it is the name of his mission, in both senses of the word. Bailey's Cafe is located in a broken-down premises that bore the name when he took it over after World War II. "Located" is a manner of speaking; the entrance is on a ghetto street in any or all of our cities; the back looks out on a timeless cosmic void.

Gloria Naylor's new novel is devotional at heart, though it is told in contrasting shades of harsh, comic and magic realism. Its stories of ravaged urban blacks, most of them women, are

savage and sardonic, but they float in a mystical lyricism. They are the stories of the regulars who frequent Bailey's, and they are told by the proprietor, doorkeeper and gritty good shepherd who both runs it and expounds it, along with his laconically nurturing wife, Nadine. It stands "on the margin between the edge of the world and infinite possibility," he tells us.

Ms. Naylor writes consummately well of the real world's edge. Her infinite possibility is shakier. It is cloudy or downright sentimental at times, though it can also be moving. Magic is a tricky proposition; when it doesn't transport you, it strands you. The seedy watering place as a place of dreams -- Saroyan's saloon in "The Time of Your Life," the End of the Line Cafe in The Iceman Cometh," Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore and Bailey's place -- needs a vigilant bouncer to keep bathos out. Bailey, like some of his predecessors, can grow distracted.

At the start, when he is telling of his own life, Bailey's voice crackles with passion and wit. He grows up in a mix of comfort and humiliation as the son of the butler and cook in a rich black household. Baseball is his passion -- he speaks with infectious pride of the history of the Negro Leagues -- and so are women.

His courtship of Nadine is a gem. He meets her at a game; he is so uncharacteristically silenced by her beauty that he jams an ice-cream cone down her dress. Somehow it works, though; she lets him take her out, though his ebullience is flat

tened by her steadfast refusal to smile. She is enjoying herself, she says, but why -- "I'm more than my body" -- should she have to smile? And we get Bailey's hapless reasonableness as the baffled male:

"Go to Upper Borneo and smile, they'll say He's happy. Go there and slit your throat, they'll say He's dead," he expostulates, and subsides into complaint: "While most of what happens in life is below the surface, other people come up for air and translate their feelings for the general population now and then. Nadine doesn't bother."

Bailey fights in the stinking hell of World War II's Pacific campaign. It will take away his bounce, it will make him old. What makes him infinitely old is Hiroshima. He had prayed for his ordeal to end; the prayer was "answered by the only God who would hear, a God of punishment and reprisal, a salvation that is a curse."

The horrors of our time -- at war, and for blacks in the cities -- defy practical remedy. And so, Bailey and Nadine -- her silence takes on a magical aspect -- move into the partly grounded, partly floating Cafe. It is a place of kindness but it is more than a refuge. It is a place for stories and for healing -- not healing as a cure but as a power to endure -- by primal power. Much of this power, which suggests female shamanic traditions from Africa and the Caribbean, is lodged in Eve. She runs a boarding house -- as real and supernatural as the Cafe -- that is a brothel too, and a convent. Many of the brutalized women, whose story Bailey tells, live there. Their "gentleman callers" cannot buy them. They must, however, buy flowers from Eve to present to them; and each woman has her own totemic flower.

The Eve figure, her flowers and ancient female mysteries impart a certain forced wonder, an over-dosed and over-sweet exhortation; though Ms. Naylor gives her fierceness andresourcefulness as well. Some of the women's stories, such as that of the Ethiopian child, Mariam, who gives birth at the cafe although she is a virgin, and disappears in a wall of water that her parched longings have summoned up, show similar indulgence.

In others, the sheer strength and color of the story more than make up for a spot of undigested uplift here and there. "Josie" tells of a righteous woman who is both undone and transfigured by abuse. As a child, she kept an immaculate house for her dissolute, whoring mother, as if scrubbing could redeem them both. She marries an older man, kind but beaten down by injustice, and defiantly tries to keep flowers and order in their sooty shack. When he dies, she loses the house, takes to living in the street, and sells herself to other vagrants; but only for the 20 or 25 cents she needs to survive.

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