By Gloria Naylor.
New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1993.
Comments by Bob Corbett
See comments at end from internet responder.
BAILEY’S CAFÉ is a collection of deeply moving personal stories from (mainly) women deeply scared by life. Author Gloria Naylor reveals an extraordinary ability to imagine, create and relate the stories of half dozen people nearly destroyed by their pasts, yet getting some glimmer of hope in Eve’s boarding house, arrived at via Bailey’s Café.
The novel is narrated by Bailey – not really his name, but when he and his wife, Nadine, took over the run-down café called Bailey’s, he was stuck with name by his customers. It was 1948 and Bailey, a Negro WWII vet and avid fan of baseball, especially the Negro pro league, is the richest character of the book. Since he narrates the story and sets the stage for the other characters to reveal their lives to us, there is a tendency to think of him as the author. That led me to a special appreciation of Naylor’s considerable ability to make me think that this 30-something, baseball fanatic male in 1948 could be the author herself! In addition to this powerful characterization of Bailey, her historical accuracy and sensibility area also noteworthy.
Bailey’s Café is set in a run-down neighborhood of Chicago. Down the street is Eve’s boarding house. Women don’t go to Eve’s and take a room, but find there way there, and may be invited by Eve, if and only if she thinks the boarding house may be a way-station back into a meaningful existence.
Along the way we learn Eve’s story herself and some of her boarders. There is Sadie who tries to earn love by being the perfect fulfiller of anyone’s needs for order, cleanliness and elegance. Esther, who hides from light to obscure what used to happen to her in the dark cellar of her home. Mary, so beautiful that her life had only one public meaning until she scared her face. Jesse Bell who moves from the slums to the hill top with disastrous results. The Ethiopian, Miriam, suffering genital mutilation and a virgin pregnancy for propriety’s sake. And finally “Miss Maple,” rich well-educated son of a wealthy Negro family, who becomes the transvestite house keeper / bouncer for Eve’s home. Bailey’s own extraordinary story is thrown in for good measure – and good it is.
Gloria Naylor is extraordinarily talented in painting the pained pictures of these peoples’ lives. The individual stories are gripping, moving and completely believable, with the sole exception of Mariam’s tale. I think anyone who appreciates a vivid verbal picture of human existence, and doesn’t mind if those pictures are not especially happy ones, would find Naylor’s portraits deeply rewarding and moving.
I wish I could just celebrate those facets of the book and move on. Alas, I do feel a bit conflicted about some of the FORM of the novel. Two things trouble me. The first concerns the inter-relationship of the form of the novel and the content. This is a frame story, not unlike Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is the setting: Bailey’s Café and Eve’s boarding house. They provide the ground on which the character’s tell their individual stories. Bailey, the narrator, is equivalent to Chaucer’s own narration of his tales. I had significant trouble, particular in the early stories, of knowing when the voice changed from Bailey’s to the character telling her story, and with movements back and forth between the voice of Bailey and the character. That confusion was distracting and, from my perspective, unnecessary. The first such story, put forward as though it were Bailey’s own experiences in the Pacific theater of WWII was the most troubling of the stories since, while it is a simply brilliant essay on WWII, it has little relation to Bailey’s character or the language he uses in the rest of the book.
Secondly, I had a hard time understanding the value and necessity of the mythic character of Bailey’s Café and Eve’s boarding house. The stories were so real to life, so tragic and in touch with the earth. The unreal nature of Bailey’s, with a back room where strange and fantastic things happen from suicides and child birth in a light-flooded space resembling rural Ethiopia, and the sort of magic space of Eve’s, took away a sense of the reality of the rest of the novel. Perhaps Naylor just felt the pain and suffering, even the hopelessness of the stories were too much, and there needed to be some relief, perhaps even an appeal to the supernatural or occult to easy the pain. I’m not sure, but that aspect of the novel didn’t work well for me.
No matter these quibbles which I really hate to even bring up, the stories themselves are so extraordinary that I would recommend this novel to any reader. My advice would be to read it much more like a set of independent short stories and overlook what appear to me to be significant problems with the larger frame. But, however one chooses to read the book, it is worth the effort. It isn’t an easy novel, and as Bailey tells us in the short last chapter, it isn’t designed for happy endings, life just isn’t all that often like that. Naylor is right about that and the stories are just so true of so many people who live harsh lives in an unforgiving world.
BALILEY’S CAFÉ is filled with life, albeit life in deep pain, it touches us, informs us and enriches us. It’s not to be missed.
Date: Thu, 16 Dec 2004
Shavoncia Wildon email@example.com
I was randomly searching the web for tools and strategies to use in my own classroom concerning Bailey’s Cafe, when I ran across your article concerning the novel. I must begin by saying that I am absolutely in love with this novel, and I might say that it has been one of the most powerful and thought-provoking novels that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Because of these reasons, I would like to offer you a different insight into the novel.
I agree with you in your comparison of Bailey’s Cafe to The Canterbury Tales. Like Chaucer, Naylor has constructed her characters in such a way that they are on a pilgrimage as well. While Chaucer is sending his pilgrims on a religious journey, Naylor sends her pilgrims on a journey to self-redemption. This is the whole premise behind the cafe that many patrons accidentally or purposefully arrive to, or the boarding/whore house of Eve’s. I believe your questions about the novel come from this major point.
Naylor’s characters are desperately seeking salvation, or they will perish by their own evils that they have experienced in their lives. In the first few lines, Bailey tells us that he was distraught at the horrors of combat and the destitution of war, and when he reached the point of giving in, he found this mysterious cafe, and began anew. His experience is not unlike the other characters in the play. They all reach Bailey’s Cafe in the hopes of not being served a hot meal, but to regain something that was lost to them. Similar to the cafe, Eve’s boarding/whore house (depending on who you’re talking to) is also a safe haven for the characters. Esther is an excellent example of a character who could not find nourishment in the cafe, but could find what she needed at Eve’s home. She is able to survive abuse and continue her life, even after she was abused (emotionally, physically, and sexually) by her husband. In a way, Esther finds redemption and salvation, although she is seemingly still perpetrating her experiences in her husband’s cellar on the johns that come to see her; but this time she is in control and possesses the power over the men that visit her.
I could go on and on, but you probably weren’t expecting this message after you offered your comments back in 2003. I simply wanted you to understand the magnificent importance the café and the boarding house plays for the structure of the novel, and the characters involved. Both the café and the home represent finite and infinite possibilities for those who reach it, and surely want and need what the two places have to offer, which is salvation.
================================Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com