Picks and Pans Review: Bailey's Cafe
Everyone has the right to sing the blues, and that's what they do at Bailey's Cafe, the mythical 1940s eatery at the center of Naylor's gutsy novel.
Bailey's never closes, but it can't be entered unless you have the blues. Reading at times like a series of Twilight Zone episodes penned by B.B. King, Bailey's presents essentially realistic stories made remarkable by indelible characters and unusual premises. The novel's engaging narrator starts the book by recounting his life, the atrocities he witnessed during WW II and how he reclaimed meaning for himself after Hiroshima by taking over Bailey's Cafe, to offer people "hanging on to the edge just like I was...some space, some place, to take a breather for a while." Then various cafe regulars solo in their own voices. There's a large black man who is called Miss Maple. He's got a mathematics Ph.D. from Stanford, no job offers equal to his credentials and the painful conviction that despite his fondness for cross-dressing it's his race that keeps him out of work. Then there's Jesse, a woman from the Brooklyn docks whose wealthy, class-conscious Harlem in-laws drive her to a heroin habit; and Esther, a sexually abused girl turned prostitute who accepts payment only in white roses.
In Naylor's hands, these individuals' pain form a collective blues performance in prose—a lyrical remembrance and triumph over personal catastrophe. The book's format is relentlessly musical. From narrative sections—variously labeled "The Vamp," "The Jam," "The Wrap"—to a deliberate use of repetition-and-resolution, call-and-response and other blues devices, this is prose that moans.
But Naylor (The Women of Brewster Place) does more than mimic a gritty, open-hearted blues perspective. She tackles issues of class, racial prejudice and sexual harassment, then adds a plot twist that comes close to giving Bailey's a happy ending. Even without one, the novel is a sublime achievement. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95)