Sketching the lives of a host of bizarre characters, Bailey’s Cafe (1992) focuses on issues of marginality. Each of the characters, while visiting the title setting, is in transition, having barely escaped lives of not-so-quiet desperation in hopes of regaining direction and purpose. The unifying thread is the narrative voice of Bailey himself, the present manager of the cafe who, after relating his own trying tale, introduces the reader to various patrons whose individual life histories constitute the different chapter divisions. It is appropriately set in 1948, a period of significant transition in American history between the aftermath of World War II and the Civil Rights Movement to be ushered in with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KS, which mandated school integration. Like these characters, the country is, to some degree, in limbo, having also shed its innocence in the throes of global war while yet uncertain about its ability, or even willingness, to move forward, particularly in regard to racial issues. In this compelling novel, Naylor offers a chance for both the country and her characters to mature and realize their utmost potential.
Like The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills Naylor’s fourth novel is composed of several miniplots. Each chapter details the life struggle of a different character. From these collective stories the reader confronts once again the depths of human struggle and survival despite the odds. Bailey’s Cafe serves as a sanctuary for those who have been forsaken or who have been denied the solace of human compassion. It is a way station where customers are left to their own devices without interference from others. They can interact if they wish, or they can sit quietly to contemplate their condition. Because the customers have been exploited either emotionally or physically, Bailey’s offers them a place where they can try to function unmolested until they can figure out their next alternative.
One of the first characters to be introduced is Sadie, described as a wino, a whore, and a lady. Sadie has entered the cafe from the south side of Chicago, where she has maintained a life of quiet desperation. By the time she is ten, Sadie has become the house cook, seamstress, maid, cobbler, laundress, and general caretaker for an overbearing alcoholic mother. By the time Sadie is thirteen, her mother forces her into prostitution. And several months later, the mother subjects the young girl to a painful abortion, not only physically but also emotionally. By suggesting to Sadie that her life would have been much worse with a child, the mother is implying that her own life with Sadie has been a mistake. Despite her horrific home environment, Sadie fights to become a respectful lady, even though she is still a prostitute.
Sadie’s mother dies when Sadie is fourteen, and with no visible means of support beyond prostitution, Sadie continues in that trade until she lands a job as cleaning woman at an upscale white brothel, soon becoming one of the house favorites. While working there, Sadie meets the man who will become her husband. Daniel, thirty years her senior, delivers firewood to the house once a week, and though he and Sadie barely exchange words in the three years that she works there, he extends a marriage proposal to her when he learns that the house has been closed down by law officials. For the next two decades Sadie functions as Daniel’s wife and housekeeper, daunting tasks because he is silent to an extreme and the house is positioned near railroad tracks where coalcarrying train cars careen by, leaving behind smoke clouds and coal dust.Although Daniel does not seem to appreciate Sadie’s efforts, she remains committed to creating a pleasant home life for herself and her husband. Having learned the art of invisibility from living with a stern mother, Sadie knows not to intrude on Daniel’s space and consequently negotiates around him whenever he is present.
When Daniel dies after twenty-five years of marriage, Sadie is left with nothing. Because Daniel bequeathed the house to his two estranged daughters from a previous marriage, Sadie must try to raise money (in less than a month) in order to purchase the property, as neither daughter is willing to transmit the deed to Sadie. After searching endlessly, and unsuccessfully, for employment that will yield enough income to complete the purchase, Sadie is reduced once again to prostitution. But she is determined to sell herself for only the daily amount she has calculated she will need in order to meet the total amount by the end of the month. Though she has resigned herself to prostitution, she does not want to associate herself with the moral turpitude of prostitution. Her association extends from need only, not from degradation. When she tells her potential client that she requires only $2.04 (in order to meet her daily $5.79 goal; she has already earned $3.75) and proceeds to make change for him, he is both confused and amazed. Yet he, a plainclothesman, arrests her. And by the time Sadie exhausts her two-week stay in jail, she has no time to earn the full amount for the house.
Losing the house, Sadie removes to a women’s shelter, only to lose her bed there because she refuses to accept public relief. Instead, Sadie becomes homeless, selling her body only when she needs food or liquor so that she can temporarily forget her troubles. It is from the street that she ventures into Bailey’s Cafe and asks for a cup of tea. Even though Sadie has led a life of ill repute, Bailey recognizes Sadie’s elegance and manners. While her circumstances may identify her, they do not fully define her.
Sadie’s story in the cafe ends when she rejects the marriage proposal of the local ice deliveryman. Whenever Sadie visits the cafe, the local ice deliveryman joins her at the table and regales her with stories from his daily ritual. After a while, the two become friendly enough for Sadie even to venture a few words. But usually she just remains quiet, offering only a smile or a nod. On one evening, though, Iceman invites Sadie to dance with him on the pier adjacent to the cafe. When she acquiesces, Iceman takes the opportunity to propose, assuring Sadie that his pension will provide for both of them. Sadie, however, still reeling from past disappointments, declines, fearing future loss and frustration. Although she briefly fantasizes about a fulfilling life with Iceman, she ultimately decides that she would bring his life only pain and turmoil.
The next chapter belongs to Eve, who owns the boardinghouse (brothel) next door to the cafe. Eve is described as a peculiar and particular woman, who does not allow just any downtrodden woman to reside in her establishment. She provides sanctuary only to those women who truly need help or in whom she sees promise. Though both the cafe and the boardinghouse may be havens, only the cafe welcomes anyone.
Eve has arrived at Bailey’s (or next to Bailey’s) from New Orleans, where she amassed a fortune in the prostitution business after being cast from home in rural Louisiana. An orphan, Eve is raised by a stern minister, whom she calls Godfather. Her relationship with this man is strange at best, completely dysfunctional at worst. Even after she undergoes the early stages of puberty, Godfather is still laundering her personal items and giving her a nightly bath, much to the consternation of the local community. He ultimately stops the baths, but he still prevents her from socializing with other children, especially boys. While Eve recognizes that Godfather needed to discontinue the baths, she misses being touched by another human being. And as her body continues to grow and develop, she yearns for any kind of touch or stimulus. Soon she discovers a way to be satisfied, one that will ultimately wreak havoc on her home life with Godfather. Allowed only to play hide-andgo- seek with a mentally challenged boy named Billy, Eve invents another game that provides her with physical pleasure. Lying in a prone position, pressing her body into the ground, Eve instructs Billy to march back and forth around her body while stomping as vigorously as he can.
When Godfather discovers this “game,” he, in outraged response, forces Eve to leave home. Unflappable, Eve journeys to New Orleans, where in ten years she develops a talent for making money and a love for well-kept gardens. Never subjecting her own body to prostitution, she sees herself as simply providing a service for a basic human need. Upon leaving New Orleans and finding herself next to Bailey’s, Eve establishes her boardinghouse, outside of which she has created the loveliest of gardens. And from these gardens, she insists her tenants’ “gentleman callers” purchase flowers to bestow upon their chosen “lady.”
The remaining chapters focus on characters who wind up not just at Bailey’s but also at Eve’s, the first of whom is Esther. Forced into prostitution at age twelve, Esther remains in this condition for twelve moreyears. At the request of her older brother, Esther becomes the concubine of her brother’s boss, a wealthy farmer who provides her with a comfortable house and plenty of food. And because her brother has a wife and eight children to feed, Esther agrees to what she thinks is marriage to the farmer. Remaining with the farmer for twelve years in order to pay her brother for each year that he cared for her, “against the shrill protests of [his] fat wife” (98), Esther is subjected to unspeakable sexual acts that the farmer insists she perform in the basement of the house. At age twelve, Esther is naive and does not understand that when the farmer encourages her to play with the toys he has purchased for her, he is introducing her to sexual toys and sexual games.
By the time she is twenty-four, Esther realizes, of course, that she is not legally married to the farmer. When she arrives at the boardinghouse, Eve, understanding her past, provides her with a room in the basement, where she can hide in the darkness. All of her clients never see her in the light. She can function only in darkness. And because she forever feels cheated out of a proper wedding and marriage, she insists that her callers bring white roses, which she can faintly discern in the dark.
The next chapter focuses on Mary (a.k.a. Peaches), described as the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen. When the chapter opens, Peaches’ father has entered Bailey’s Cafe in search of his daughter, who has taken up residence at Eve’s house. Fully aware that Peaches is now living a life of ill repute, Daddy Jim wants to rescue Peaches and return her to Kansas City. However, Peaches’ life has changed so much since she last lived in Kansas City that she cannot simply return so easily.
When Peaches was a young teenager living in her parents’ home, the boys in the neighborhood often pursued her, but because her father was so protective, she was not allowed to date any of the prospective suitors. In an attempt to harness her own sexuality and repress any desire, Peaches ironically becomes controlled by an ever-intensifying urge. Seeing herself as two people, one pure, wholesome, and good, and the other wicked, promiscuous, and aggressive, Peaches decides to submit the lascivious one to a host of men in order to protect her more sacred self. Peaches is plagued by her beauty because men constantly flirt with her, accost her, or leer at her. Believing she has no other recourse, Peaches engages in one affair after the other. Soon she earns a reputation for loose behavior, much to the consternation of her father who, upon learning of a recent tryst, would seek revenge against the man.
Finding it difficult to see her father tormented in this way, Peachesultimately leaves home, only to find herself living on the seedy side of town and prostituting in order to survive. Sinking lower and lower, Peaches begins to hate herself. Before, she found some peace in distinguishing between her good self and this wayward self. But now she sees her entire being consumed by sexual desire. By the time she is living with one man, who tries to save her in the way that her father did, she has lost all hope of rehabilitation. In an effort to rescue Peaches, her gambler boyfriend moves her from city to city, thinking that if she is removed from the source of her temptation (specific men), she will be strong enough to withstand the urges. Nothing, however, seems to remedy the situation.
Because Peaches feels guilty for her infidelity to this man, she makes a concerted effort to suppress her feelings. For two whole weeks, she refuses to leave their plush apartment, because she does not want to encounter any other men with whom she might be tempted to rendezvous. She even refuses to answer the door, lest she might seduce a deliveryman. And for two weeks she almost drives herself mad. It is at the end of the second week that she takes drastic measures. Believing that her beauty will forever plague her, Peaches takes a beer opener and slices a diagonal line across her right cheek all the way to the left side of her chin, all the while suffering piercing pain before passing out. Now that she is no longer beautiful Peaches feels relieved of the physical torment that has been a part of her entire life.
Upon her release from the hospital Peaches boards a train for no predetermined destination. She ultimately lands in Bailey’s and is soon directed to Eve’s where she has remained until the present. As the chapter ends, her father is sent to Eve’s, but when he arrives there, Eve will not allow him to cross the threshold. Peaches remains at Eve’s for now; at the very least, she knows that she can return home whenever she wishes.
Following Peaches’ story is the saga of Jesse Bell, who has come to Eve’s after surviving the deliberate sabotage of her happy domestic life. At Eve’s she regains her equilibrium after suffering from an emotional downfall that leads also to drug abuse. Like the other women’s stories, Jesse Bell’s is a story of survival despite the obstacles placed before one. Jesse Bell hails from a solid working-class family and is proud of their fast-talking, hearty-living existence. Nevertheless, Jesse Bell marries into one of Manhattan’s most prominent black families, the Kings. Unfazed by the King affluence and influence, Jesse Bell is simply happy to have found a man who seems to love her for who she is. And for a while, her life is fulfilling, particularly after the birth of her son, heir apparent to the King fortune.
Jesse Bell’s marriage lasts for nineteen years, but signs of its demise emerge in the early years. Uncle Eli King, the family patriarch, has been determined from its inception to destroy the relationship, because he believes that Jesse Bell is not worthy of the King name. He accuses her of throwing veritable bacchanals wherein all sorts of lewd and lascivious behavior is condoned; he even suggests that Jesse Bell’s elderly mother participates in such activities. And because of Uncle Eli’s bourgeois pretensions, he disdains any conduct that, in his estimation, frames blacks in a stereotypical light. According to Jesse Bell, Uncle Eli was obsessed with “lifting” the black race to the level of (upper-class) white acceptance. Because of his obsession, Uncle Eli even criticizes the soul food that Jesse Bell prepares for her family, referring to it as slave food.
Ironically, many others in the King clan find Jesse Bell, her parties, and her food pleasing, often sneaking to Jesse Bell’s house to enjoy her home cooking, that is, until Uncle Eli learns of the betrayal and admonishes the culprits. And while Jesse Bell suffers these various affronts to her dignity early in her marriage, it is not until after the birth of her son that matters worsen. Very subtly, but very methodically, Uncle Eli maneuvers himself into every important decision concerning the young King’s life: what nanny to hire (instead of allowing Jesse Bell complete influence), what tutor to engage (instead of registering the boy for public school as his mother desired), or what camp to attend (instead of letting the boy go fishing with his Bell uncles). Yet when Jesse Bell alerts her husband to these machinations, he accuses her of being paranoid about his uncle. And because these intrusions “came in little pieces, one thing this year, another thing the next” (128), Jesse Bell cannot convince her husband of Uncle Eli’s sinister intent. She only awakens one day to discover that her son has become a stranger to her and the other Bells, the day he refuses to attend her mother’s ninetieth birthday party because “he didn’t have anything in common with those people” (128).
The final blow comes to Jesse Bell on the day that the Kings celebrate her son’s acceptance into Harvard. When Uncle Eli invites the Bells, Jesse Bell, justifiably suspicious of his motives, fears that only trouble can ensue. On the day of the cookout, it rains incessantly. Prepared, though, for this inclement weather, Uncle Eli readies the yard with a tent to protect his food and guests; however, he has told the Bells to arrive two hours later than the other guests so that by the time they do arrive, there is no more room available under the tent. As a consequence, the Bells cannot grill their food, because they cannot maintain a fire in the exposed open pit. Jesse Bell’s mother catches a cold, which leads to pneumonia, and then she dies a month later. This turn of events completely unhinges Jesse Bell. But when her husband refuses to acknowledge that the whole scheme was premeditated, Jesse Bell seeks solace in the only friend she can ultimately trust—heroin.
Unfortunately for her, matters get even worse. When a lesbian club is raided, Jesse Bell, an affirmed bisexual, in attendance, is hauled off to a detention center. With the help of Uncle Eli her entire reputation is sullied in the local newspapers. And because her husband must protect the King name and legacy, he dissociates himself and his son from Jesse Bell. So Jesse Bell becomes an incarcerated junkie. Only when Eve, who visits the women’s detention center periodically out of a sense of civic duty, discovers Jesse Bell and offers her the possibility of hope does Jesse Bell begin to recover from her devastating ordeal. This recovery is successful only after Eve employs tough love. Initially believing that Jesse Bell is incapable of beating her drug habit, Eve tests Jesse Bell’s resolve by supplying her with as much heroin as she can ingest. After making Jesse Bell suffer through two bouts of painful four-day withdrawals, Eve finally believes that Jesse Bell is serious about her recovery. Jesse Bell’s story ends with the hope that she will be strong enough to withstand temptation.
The chapter entitled “Mary (Take Two)” follows Jesse Bell’s saga. It details the unbelievable story of a woman who is different from the earlier Mary (Peaches). To distinguish, Naylor calls this second character Mariam. With this chapter Naylor elevates the novel to a mystical plane, wherein Mariam assumes the central role in a tale of sacrifice and purity that challenges the reader’s sense of reality and truth. Naylor also presents this chapter as a woman’s story when she shifts the narrative voice from Bailey to his wife Nadine. As well, Eve shares in the retelling of Mariam’s tale.
Mariam has come to live at Eve’s house after having been thrust from her own country, Ethiopia, because others there believe she has sinned. An Ethiopian Jew, Mariam finds herself pregnant though she swears that she has never been with a man. Because she has such an innocent way about her, no one in the vicinity of Bailey’s can question the veracity of her assertion.
Mariam is brought to Eve’s by Gabe, the owner of the pawnshop that stands adjacent to the cafe. Gabe, who is also Jewish, is introduced in this chapter as a nemesis to Bailey. The two of them constantly argue over issues of race, history, politics, etc. That Gabe, a veritable curmudgeon, would assume responsibility for Mariam speaks well for Mariam’s apparent innocence and virtue. Usually Gabe has nothing to do with Eve’s establishment. Whenever transients happen into the pawnshop looking for sanctuary, Gabe sends them to the cafe, and then if Bailey sees fit, he will send them to Eve’s. But for Mariam, Gabe makes direct contact, because he knows that given her predicament, Mariam will be treated with respect only at Eve’s.
Much of the chapter details Mariam’s life before she arrives at Eve’s. While still young, Mariam had to undergo a rite of passage designed solely for girls, one to raise their value and increase their marital prospects. As a consequence, Mariam suffers genital mutilation (female circumcision). Because of her condition, according to Eve, there is no possible way that Mariam could have slept with a man without the knowledge of others, who would have heard her screams. Those in her village, however, believe Mariam to be lying, and when she refuses to name the father of her child, she is cast from the village. Journeying endlessly, she arrives in Addis Ababa, and from there, she finds Gabe’s shop. Now, Eve and the others on the street must prepare for the birth of Mariam’s baby.
Initially the other women (all the men, including Bailey, have left) in the cafe listening to this story are skeptical about Mariam’s immaculate pregnancy. As a means of convincing them of Mariam’s honesty, during Nadine’s reexamination of Mariam’s life, Eve showcases a truncated version of the ritual that Mariam suffered by using a plum. And though this display unnerves her audience, especially Nadine, Eve is determined to complete the ceremony and, to some extent, honor Mariam’s courage and resilience. The women’s squeamishness for what Mariam endured translates into a greater compassion for the young woman and an increased sensitivity not only for her past troubles but also for her present circumstances.
Naylor’s longest and most comprehensive chapter, “Miss Maple’s Blues,” follows. Bailey resumes, at least briefly, his duty as narrator, his voice serving as transitional tool to link Miss Maple’s self-narrated tale to the others. Miss Maple is actually Stanley, whose middle names are Beckwourth Booker T. Washington Carver, and who supplies no surname. Stanley is named after famous black men who contributed extensively to the betterment of American society, mainly because his father also wanted him to make his mark on society in an impressive way.
Stanley becomes Miss Maple after suffering a series of setbacks that left him unsure about his suitable place in America. Hailing from an impressive family who boast wealth, extensive landholdings, and a multicultural heritage, Stanley is destined to succeed in life. Growing up on the family ranch in rural southern California, Stanley is afforded privileges that few of any race in the first half of the twentieth century could claim. His father bestows upon him a private education and supplies him with as many intellectual challenges as Stanley can surmount. In short, his father prepares him to be his own man, though Stanley would not appreciate these efforts until much later.
Upon leaving home Stanley attends Stanford University where he pursues a degree in mathematics, ultimately earning his Ph.D., but not before he is drafted. Refusing, however, to fight for a country that does not consider him a full-fledged citizen, Stanley declines, opting instead to serve his time in jail as a conscientious objector. This rebellious nature will be vital in his transformation from Stanley to Miss Maple.
After completing graduate study Stanley sets out to secure gainful employment, firmly believing that with his credentials, with a post– World War II booming economy, and with the marketing analyst field burgeoning, he will successfully land a job. From Los Angeles to Philadelphia Stanley applies at various firms, only to be told that he could assume a blue-collar position but never an executive seat. Even though some interviewers are visibly disappointed that they cannot hire a perfectly qualified candidate, no one is willing to risk hiring a black man. Continuing to travel from west to east during an increasingly hot summer, Stanley soon discovers that he cannot abide the stifling men’s clothing that he has worn for these various interviews. He then decides to don less restrictive, loose-fitting women’s clothes, figuring that his chances of landing a job thus attired could not be any worse than they have been thus far.
Never securing that much sought-after job, Stanley (now Miss Maple) finds himself working as a housekeeper at Eve’s. And because he feels freer, or as he indicates, “I’d never felt more like a man” (204), he continues to wear women’s clothes during the warmer months. It is Eve who bestows upon him the title Miss Maple. Living at Eve’s for two years now, Miss Maple has ironically amassed a small fortune by entering and winning jingle-writing contests sponsored by some of the very companies that refused to hire him. He uses the market research he performed in preparation for those interviews to assist him in crafting the perfect jingle. His story ends with the hope that he will be able to start his own company and finally chart his own course.
In the final chapter, entitled “The Wrap,” Bailey attempts to conclude what has been an unconventional story. But because the overall text allows only a glimpse into the lives of the various characters, constructing a neat package at the end is all but impossible. Bailey does, however, allow in this final chapter greater insight into his love-hate friendship with Gabe, the Russian Jew. As stated above, the two men enjoy arguing about political and social issues, with each one vying for authority. According to Bailey, what makes their interaction special is the unconditional respect they have for each other. They dare to plumb topics that others of different backgrounds would never consider broaching. Nevertheless, when they discuss issues that are very personal to one of them, the other defers to the opinion/perspective of the first.
Nevertheless, it is from this position of mutual respect that Gabe and Bailey, and the others who frequent the cafe, attempt to help Mariam as she prepares for the birth of her child. As a black and a Jew, Mariam has by virtue of her very existence earned the loyalty of both men. Each of them tries to find a solution to Mariam’s plight. Gabe seeks passage for her to Israel, but her entrance is denied. Bailey hopes that one of his customers might take her under wing and care for her and her child, but no one comes forward to assist. Soon after she delivers her robust son, Mariam dies, so the only recourse is to hand over the child—named George—to a shelter for homeless boys, managed by one of Bailey’s acquaintances. The ending is neither happy nor sad; it is just matter-of-fact. In answer to what he argues is as realistic a conclusion as he can muster, Bailey submits, “I don’t believe that life is supposed to make you feel good, or to make you feel miserable either. Life is just supposed to make you feel” (219).
In a novel that identifies several characters as significant, no one character tends to dominate the narrative. Since the reader is given mainly a sketch of each character’s life, as in The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills, it is challenging to chart the comprehensive development of any one of them. Each character, in an individual way, represents a work-in-progress, for each is attempting to transform some important aspect of his or her life in order to gain, at the very least, a modicum of power and control. This tentative development is best described as a process whereby characters strive initially to please others (society, authority figures, etc.); then, finding such an attempt unsatisfying or unrewarding, they opt to please only themselves. Ultimately, however, with rare exception, they try to strike a balance between these two alternatives.
The key to understanding and appreciating the plight of these characters is Bailey who, along with his wife Nadine, recounts the stories of these transients with a matter-of-fact directness that both invites and commands respect for each of Eve’s residents/Bailey’s customers. Even the most bizarre tales are presented in such a way that the dignity of the “protagonist” is retained. Bailey soon alerts the reader that the world of the cafe is special and that the customers are to be accorded the same level of respect as one would extend to any human being. One must simply accept them as they are, just as one must accept the cafe, with its attendant rules, just as it is. While Bailey will not coddle the customers, just as he will not coddle the reader, he will allow them enough space to exorcise whatever demons are haunting them. With Bailey, as with Nadine, there is neither pretense nor hypocrisy.
This direct approach to life and to people, with little regard for foolhardiness, is best examined in Bailey’s response to new customers who, unaware of the ordering policy, venture into the cafe´. In Bailey’s there are no entre´e options during the week, only the standard fare for that particular day. However, on the weekends customers may order whatever they would like. Because some newcomers are perplexed by such choices, they will challenge the rule and place a far-fetched order. If the customer eats the strange food combination, it is free; however, if he refuses, Bailey makes sure the smart aleck pays for the trouble.
Like Bailey, Nadine is a no-nonsense person, who may or may not serve any given customer, depending on her temperament on that day. And Nadine refuses to observe standard rules of expected social behavior. When she and Bailey are dating just prior to their marriage, Nadine rarely exudes any excitement or pleasure about the courtship, if in fact it could be defined as such. On one occasion Bailey questions her about not having smiled all day, fearing that she might not be pleased with the date, and in response Nadine offers a question of her own: “But what does that [smiling] have to do with being pleased?” (17). Nadine rejects any prescribed notions of how she should behave or how she should respond to circumstances. Instead she charts her own course. A woman of few words, she chooses them carefully and utters them forcefully, fully expecting the listener to understand not only the words themselves but also the implied context.
Bailey and Nadine are the narrative voices through whom the reader is introduced to the other characters. With their somewhat implacable demeanor, they serve as protectors of these castaways whose vulnerabilities are heightened in their efforts to regain sanity and/or equilibrium in their lives as they undergo the developmental process noted above. No story presents this fact more clearly than does Sadie’s. The only person whom Nadine actually serves twice (that in itself makes this customer a unique type), Sadie, while described as a whore and a wino, is also a lady. Because she is not easily categorized, one must simply accept her in her totality.
Sadie’s life has been fraught with pain. For most of her years, she has attempted to please all others, first her mother (who never wanted to have children and who constantly referred to Sadie as The One The Coat Hanger Missed), then her husband (a taciturn man old enough to be her father who relished nothing but peace and quiet). In order to please both of them, Sadie elevates silence to a fine art; with her mother she softens a cracker in her mouth rather than chew it, lest she crunch too loudly and disturb her mother’s drunken slumber. And with her husband Daniel, she sews peacefully while even timing herself to bite the thread at the same instant when Daniel clinks the ice in his whiskey-filled glass. Even when Sadie works as a maid in a brothel after the death of her mother and before her marriage, her job is to honor the requests of the residents and customers.
After being thrust from her home after the death of Daniel, Sadie seeks personal peace by periodically sipping tea alone in the cafe, the only apparent joy left in an otherwise forlorn life. However, during a brief phase, Sadie seeks a shred of joy for herself when she accepts the attentions of Iceman Jones, who tries so desperately to bring happiness to Sadie. For the first time in her life, Sadie seeks pleasure just for herself, and she seems to gain a measure of self-esteem. At one point she even fantasizes about embarking on a new life with Iceman. Unfortunately, the fantasy is short-lived, with Sadie ultimately rejecting Iceman’s proposal and resuming her life on the street. At the very least, though, Sadie enjoys, if only temporarily, the company of a man who accepts her just as she is. And in terms of the developmental process, Sadie returns to her former life with something she never before enjoyed, unconditional love.
As with Sadie, Jesse Bell also spends the greater portion of her life trying to curry favor with others, in this case with her in-laws, the Kings. Devoting herself entirely to her husband and her son, Jesse Bell tries to prove that she is worthy of the King name by becoming a loyal wife and doting mother. As a consequence, she is practically blindsided when husband and son are taken from her. This “theft,” at the hands of Uncle Eli, serves aesthetically to flesh out Jesse Bell’s character. Because she is presented initially as a shrewd, streetwise person, one does not expect her to be easily duped. And in some measure, she is not. However, Jesse Bell is quite unprepared for the ensuing events that completely alter her life. Ironically, because she does falter, she is presented as a more complex character. The fact that she suffers makes her even more human (thus, vital) than she was before.
Jesse Bell’s desire to be accepted by the Kings completely blinds her to the fact that she will never be accepted, that indeed she will be destroyed. In fact, the very person she thinks will usher her into full acceptance will be the one used to sever her ties with the family—her son. Recounting Uncle Eli’s proud response to the boy’s birth, Jesse Bell recalled thinking that this reaction signaled her own acceptance. Years later Jesse Bell will review this moment regretfully when she admits that she “shoulda listened more closely to what Uncle Eli was saying: Look what Jesse Bell has given us” (Naylor’s emphasis; 127). That she, of all people, would miss the import of Uncle Eli’s comment is a testament to her capacity for human imperfection, the depths of which mark her as a character primed for further growth and change.
Jesse Bell, after losing all that was precious to her and after almost losing her entire self, will create a new being once she becomes as devoted to herself as she previously was to the Kings. This devotion will entail, of course, her battling the drug addiction and suffering through the pains and pangs of withdrawal. By the time she is a veteran resident at Eve’s, Jesse Bell has become her own person, no longer beholden to any authority but herself. When Bailey introduces her story, she has come by for one of her midnight card-playing games with him, defying Eve’s curfew in an honest attempt to retain control over her life.
In addition to Sadie and Jesse Bell, Stanley (a.k.a. Miss Maple) emerges as the final well-developed character. Unlike Sadie and Jesse, however, Stanley is introduced as a defiant person, instead of one who must grow into rebellion. His development, then, entails honing his skills of resistance and learning to manipulate societal rules to his benefit. The very existence of Stanley and his family is a defiant act. As an affluent family of color (theirs is a mixture of ethnicities, not just African American), they challenge preconceived notions about the laziness associated with blacks, while Stanley’s academic success challenges notions of inferiority. Later in life, Stanley will even rebel against his country when he assumes the posture of conscientious objector during World War II.
The real test for Stanley is presented, however, when he, now holding a Ph.D., pursues employment in corporate America. To most of these prospective employers, Stanley’s presence is audacious. And when he refuses to accept positions less prestigious than those for which he is qualified, they consider him the epitome of arrogance, especially when he declines a job as “assistant to the assistant foreman” (202), or in the instance when he challenges the interviewer. Ultimately feeling disenchanted and utterly exhausted, Stanley finds himself in Bailey’s, contemplating buying a revolver and a single bullet. The formerly strong, determined, undaunted Stanley seems completely defeated. This is a crucial turning point for one who has personified resistance. Stanley’s growth, then, will come as a result of learning to recoup his strength and redouble his efforts not only to survive, but also to thrive in a world that would rather he fail.
By now Stanley has perfected the art of defiance. As Miss Maple, he rejects prescribed gender definitions. He is still a man though dressed in women’s clothes. He is not a homosexual, and he does not want to be a woman. He is simply being himself with little or no regard for outside opinions. And as a means of truly perfecting his art and of gaining revenge, Stanley has manipulated the corporate system and, as a bonus, has made himself a wealthy man. By entering jingle-writing contests for various products, Stanley, who as a marketing research analyst—though unworthy of employment—studied America’s postwar cultural wave, has amassed a small fortune. In short, he has used what he learned on those ill-fated interviews to tap the corporate coffers. And having successfully made such an inroad, he is now schooled on the true purpose and function of the contests. These arbitrary contests are not designed to reward talent. Rather, they are created to gauge the thought processes of the consumers so that the new slogans will then reflect these consumer thoughts/desires and result in higher sales. That a black, Ph.D.-holding transvestite brothel housekeeper has become financially successful at the expense of corporate greed is the ultimate defiant act and represents Stanley’s continued intellectual development. Like the other charactersdiscussed above, Stanley will use his knowledge to help himself, by pursuing his original goal of establishing his own business (he had planned to work in other companies only temporarily).
Significant minor characters include Sugar Man, Sister Carrie, Mr. and Mrs. Van Morrison, Uncle Eli, Miss Maple’s father, Gabriel, and Daniel. Sugar Man is the area pimp and hustler whose main task is to entice wayward young women to work for him as prostitutes before they find their way to Eve’s brothel. He is presented as the ultimate human parasite who not only feeds off of the misery and misfortune of others but also denigrates others in a futile effort to define himself. This attempt is made clear in Sugar Man’s treatment of Miss Maple. Even though Bailey has repeatedly told him that Miss Maple is not gay, Sugar Man needs to relegate Miss Maple to homosexuality in order to keep himself sane and his own world “normal.” He must place, or “fix,” others to make himself comfortable. Ostensibly presented as his opposite is Sister Carrie, resident Bible-thumper and self-righteous voice of morality. She is, however, just as despicable as Sugar Man. Sister Carrie patronizes the cafe only to secure an audience for her endless harangues on the mortal and venial sins of everyone but herself. She is especially insulted that Bailey would serve anyone who lives in, or is in any way connected with, Eve’s house. Sister Carrie cannot see herself and the patrons as human; she can be human only if she re-creates them as subhuman. But because Bailey’s, the world that Naylor has created, welcomes difference, Sister Carrie is presented only as a carping and shrewish woman. Even though she vies so desperately to be the authority on righteousness and normalcy, Sister Carrie emerges, ironically, as marginal to the marginalized, and as a consequence, ultimately she has no authoritative voice in the novel. Mr. and Mrs. Van Morrison are the couple for whom Bailey’s parents worked when he was a young boy. Affluent blacks, they made Bailey’s family feel inferior and beholden. Striving too desperately to be accepted into white society, they fail to acknowledge their own oppressive behaviors in their interaction with less affluent blacks.
Similar to the Van Morrisons is Uncle Eli, in-law to Jesse Bell and catalyst for her downfall. Because he, too, is obsessed with elitist values, he demeans those blacks who, he believes, are inferior to him. Still another minor character who has achieved economic success yet has not allowed it to consume him (at least not in regard to other blacks) is Stanley’s father. As a wealthy landowner and businessman, he has tried to instill in Stanley (a.k.a. Miss Maple) a sense of pride in the family accomplishments, particularly in the face of white bigotry. Gabriel, Russian Jew and pawnshop owner, provides the means of challenging arbitrary social and religious boundaries. Though Gabe and Bailey are often at odds in any political or religious discussion, they ultimately find common ground, even if they merely agree to disagree. Gabe’s presence, and his interaction with Bailey, reminds the reader that “differences” must somehow coexist. Daniel, Sadie’s husband, is important because he prods the reader to assess even the most minor characters as comprehensively as possible. On the surface a bitter and distant man who offers Sadie no emotional support, Daniel is, in fact, a man with feeling. The reader glimpses this depth only when Daniel, drunk and despondent, mutters about lifelong frustrations and offenses he has suffered. With each utterance the reader discovers that Daniel’s manhood and humanity have been systematically eroded over time.
While Naylor tackles many different topics in Bailey’s Cafe, the one theme that consumes much of the work is marginality. In every aspect, and on every level of the novel, Naylor explores the idea of defying boundaries and discarding labels. From the characters she chooses to create to the circumstances she crafts for them, Naylor embraces marginality as a suitable condition for real people who lead real and poignant lives. As the original dust jacket for the novel states, Bailey’s Cafe “is a magnet that draws a wide variety of society’s detritus.” That Naylor would write an entire novel that addresses the plight of the downtrodden shows an appreciation for those who are, and for that which is, decidedly different. Peopling this drama is a transvestite, a heroin addict, a bordello owner, a wino (and prostitute), and a nymphomaniac, among others. Each, however, has an important story to tell, one that taps into the pain of human suffering and touches the heart of all who hear it. Though they may be called misfits when perceived from an assumed position of normalcy, within the confines of the work each is as normal as his or her circumstances allow. In short, Naylor forces the reader to (re-) consider these characters only in the context of their individual lives.
As a means of highlighting this notion of marginality Naylor sets the story in a mythical place. Bailey’s is no ordinary cafe. Sitting “right on the margin between the edge of the world and infinite possibility” (76), the cafe represents the marginalized people who inhabit it. Like those people, the cafe is relevant and necessary. In short, it has a purpose.Instead of being fixed in a particular city (the New York location, notwithstanding), the cafe is “real real mobile” (28). Every regular patron who first arrives enters the cafe directly from whatever city he or she has just departed, that is, from whatever place has caused the most recent pain, confusion, or despair. For Bailey himself, it is San Francisco. For Eve, it is New Orleans. For Sadie, it is Chicago. For Peaches, it is Cincinnati. For Mariam, it is Addis Ababa. And for Miss Maple, it is Pittsburgh. Since the cafe itself is rooted in no particular place, it is the perfect haven for its transient patrons.
Once inside the cafe, one must quickly learn to interpret the subtleties of the place. Bailey points out that in the cafe and beyond, “most of what happens in life is below the surface” (19). In these observations Bailey emphasizes that one must be open to possibilities. People who enter the cafe with preconceived notions (i.e., with fixed boundaries, labels, and rigid ideas of reality, all to be equated with a “surface” understanding) will miss the bulk of the information to be communicated. To function on the surface is tantamount to remaining beholden to one’s own sense of the real, or one’s own perspective. This self-deception emerges as a secondary theme. Yet Bailey (and consequently, Naylor) asks, why bother with the journey if one does not intend to grow and learn from the experience?
Everyone who enters the cafe is in transition. Life in the real (or other) world has become overwhelming, unfair, and even cruel. In the “transitional space” of the cafe, customers can relax unmolested as they attempt to regain composure. In celebrating marginal people who find themselves in a marginal place, Naylor also celebrates (in fact, urges) the possibility for change. Because pat labels and simple cliche´s are insufficient in identifying the characters or in describing their lives, none of them is left in a fixed, static condition. Rather their lives are nebulous, their futures ambiguous. They have achieved a peaceful limbo, and because of their apparent resilience and adjustability, they will more likely grow and develop in ways far beyond those who are settled in a comfortable, pigeonholed existence.
As a means of further foregrounding this transitory ideal, Naylor even questions Bailey’s identity. Bailey is not really Bailey. The present proprietor of the cafe, whom the reader calls Bailey, simply adopted the name that was already sketched on the outside of the cafe when he assumed ownership. Eschewing a fixed label because he believes it insufficient in capturing the complexity of his identity, “Bailey” would rather allow latitude for self-definition.
Naylor’s attention to marginality provides the appropriate prelude to yet another significant theme, establishing and maintaining respect for others’ reality. Because all of the characters are, or have been, in some way marginalized or persecuted, they better appreciate the oppression of others. Instead of an oppressed person becoming the oppressor of another, these characters are so focused on trying to regain their own equilibrium, they cannot fathom the notion of trying to survive or thrive at the expense of another’s pain, or attempting to glorify their own trials by belittling the struggle of another. In discussing his interactions with Gabe, Bailey echoes this sentiment: “We don’t get into comparing notes on who did what to whom the most. Who’s got the biggest pile of bodies. The way I see it, there is no comparison” (220). In other words, Bailey allows Gabe his reality, while Gabe does likewise.
Naylor’s attention to marginality (defying boundaries and restrictions) and to respecting others’ reality segues to an equally important and related theme: understanding that reality is a carefully designed, albeit arbitrary, construct. Simply put, those with political and economic might have the power to define social (i.e., the standard) reality, but one’s individual sense of reality is provided by personal experience along with its cultural foundation. However, when the minority reality (experience) collides with that of the majority, the minority’s worldview is rejected as either distorted or nonexistent. Jesse Bell’s tale is one that illustrates this point. Even though her former life is systematically ruined by Uncle Eli, who drives her to the point of such distraction that she seeks relief in the only source available to her, heroin, Uncle Eli, powerful and well-connected, can determine exactly how the King family tragedy will be recorded (historicized). His account will emerge as the “truthful” (or real) version. Imagining what this version will be, Jesse Bell laments, that “it’s all about who’s in charge of keeping the records, ain’t it?” (118). And those in charge of the records have the authority to determine the contents of those records.
This same issue is at the heart of a major conflict in Stanley’s (Miss Maple’s) early life. During his formative years, Stanley often resented the fact that his father would taunt the local whites with his wealth and acquisitions yet would refuse to fight like a man whenever he was challenged. For this reason, Stanley assumes his father is weak, when, in fact, his father simply refuses to acknowledge white primacy; to him most whites are merely invisible. As his father warns, “to accept even a single image in their language as your truth is to be led into accepting them all” (182). Stanley’s father does not want his son to believe, in this case,that white reality (with its presupposition of white supremacy and black bestiality) should define his self-perception. Whites may control the information and the ideas broadcast, but Stanley should in no way adopt these perceptions as his own. Instead, he must create a language and a set of standards that make his reality the norm. To depend on the language of the majority to define the minority leads to self-destruction, since, of course, the majority has no suitable means of positioning, in this case, black normalcy. Recalling the difficulty that the whites in the vicinity had in comprehending the economic success of his family’s ranch, Stanley understands that these onlookers could not reconcile the idea of Stanley’s family, whom they considered subhuman, and American success assuming the same space. Such a concept is beyond the scope of their reality. Nonetheless, it is Stanley’s responsibility to reject their perspective and to create a language (if only known to him) to verify himself, not for others but for his own emotional peace.
Naylor’s focus on marginality is a deliberate attempt to reestablish a commitment to the inclusion of all kinds of people to whatever the discussion. As a means of succeeding in this goal, Naylor must also impel her readers to question their understanding of what is normal or standard. No better example of this challenge exists than Bailey’s attitude concerning the holiday season; he refuses to decorate for a Christian holiday that would exclude so many people. Of course, a largely Christian country like America assumes that Christianity is the standard religion or, if not, that it should be. Bailey puts the reader on notice that such a perspective is quite arrogant given the reality of the global numbers. It is this kind of awareness that Naylor tries to effect. Naylor blends several themes—marginality, change and transition, and respect for others’ reality (point of view)—in an effort to encourage compassion and sensitivity for difference.
Bailey’s Cafe is set in 1948, the post–World War II period that marked an important crossroad not only in American and African-American history, but also in global history. While segregation was still the law of the land in America, 1948 ushered in an era of change, one that would culminate in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. However, the activism that marked the Movement would be a long time coming. Nevertheless, that Naylor has set her novel in 1948 is appropriate for a work that has as a thematic impulse new beginnings. Such beginnings, or the question of beginnings, are also relevant to Jewish exiles and survivors of the Holocaust. And with the 1948 establishment of Israel as a sanctuary for persecuted Jews, more questions than answers would develop.
One of the most notable occurrences in 1947 was the initial desegregation of major league baseball with Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, for someone like Bailey who only three years prior departed a segregated armed forces, the prospects for true American integration seem few. For him, Jackie Robinson’s acceptance into professional baseball is not enough. In Bailey’s opinion true integration would come only when blacks also owned, managed, and coached teams. That is, America would provide for her black citizens equal access to all elements of prosperity. In short, America would act American. But until this national character is actually realized, no true progress will occur.
In order to showcase widespread and repetitive human oppression, Naylor links the plight of blacks in America with that of the Holocaust survivors by presenting the issue of exile. Both groups suffered forced removal and were later denied freedom of movement. This post–World War II period, however, is a time of trying to reestablish boundaries, both literally (evident in the creation of Israel out of the former Palestine) and figuratively (evident in the attempt to renegotiate the boundaries of acceptable social interaction in regard to black-white exchange). Naylor introduces as one of her central characters Mariam, an Ethiopian Jew, who upon arriving at the cafe burdens Bailey, his wife, and others with the question of what to do with her. Mariam’s presence in the novel allows Naylor to exploit this notion of marginality and force a discussion/ analysis of identity and place. In some ways, Mariam, “a little snip of a girl bringing a really big question . . . because she got herself born black and a Jew” (221), is the quintessential exile. Like American blacks her identity is compromised when she is denied a place where she is fully accepted. Like Russian Jews she needs to find a place to call home. But as a black and a Jew, her very existence plagues those who cannot easily define her.
Naylor relies on individual stories to present an overall narrative about the woes of the downtrodden. Each chapter is a complete unit, detailing the life of a different character. What unifies these stories is the presence of the main narrator, Bailey himself. His voice serves as the link among those in this bizarre cast. First narrating his own story, providing the reader not only with details of his childhood and military career but also with glimpses into his early life with his wife Nadine, Bailey then introduces the ensuing chapters, most often however relinquishing the storytelling responsibility to a particular character. In this way, then, Bailey’s voice frames the voices of the other characters, by introducing and concluding the chapter (one exception is the chapter on Mariam, which Nadine narrates).
Time is an element that Naylor carefully manipulates, employing both linear (or traditional) and virtual (or flexible) time. Because Bailey’s is a virtual (or mobile) cafe, appearing in whatever city a character needs to find a sanctuary, time becomes quite a relative concept. When a given character is telling his or her story, the narrative adopts whatever time period in the past the story dictates, never extending more than a few years. In terms of linear time, the overall narrative proceeds from the summer of 1948 to the summer of 1949, from the time Bailey introduces the first story until he presents the conclusion. Details like the holiday season and the mention of winter alert the reader that linear time has elapsed. By employing both elements of time, Naylor creates a more realistic work, even though she is presenting some rather unbelievable information. On the one hand, life moves along a chronological plane, as organisms move from inception to death. On the other hand, life (at least, human life) is consistently impacted by past events, a circumstance that makes these events a staple of the present. One of the overriding issues in this work is the extent to which these characters’ past lives continue to impinge on their present concerns. By using this technique Naylor allows for a unified approach to her assessment of the novel’s inhabitants.
As a means of accommodating this relaxed use of time, Naylor crafts the work as though it were an ongoing musical improvisation. The text becomes almost a moving, living piece, beholden to the whim of the immediate narrative voice (or singer). Many of the chapter headings helpto illustrate this improvisational technique, for example, “Maestro, If You Please” (the opening chapter that introduces Bailey as prime narrator), “The Vamp” (one definition of vamp is “an improvised musical accompaniment”), “The Jam” (a section heading), “Mood: Indigo,” “Eve’s Song,” and “Miss Maple’s Blues.” And in the opening chapter, Bailey prepares the reader/audience with the following: “There’s a whole set to be played here if you want to stick around and listen to the music” (4). Using this device of improvisation, Naylor ironically creates a more realistic text (ironic in the fact that she addresses unusual issues, which might not be labeled realistic by some), because the result is a less contrived overall structure. The narrative disorder, or dissonance, is consistent with real-life movement. As Bailey states in the last chapter, “If life is truly a song, then what we’ve got here is just snatches of a few melodies” (219). And as with musical improvisation, both the composer and the listener participate in the ultimate interpretation. In this way, the novel is open rather than closed.
One of the most significant facets of its openness, or textual flexibility, is the novel’s link to Mama Day. George, who is born to Mariam at the end of Bailey’s Cafe, is presented as Cocoa’s husband in Mama Day, Naylor’s third novel and the predecessor to Bailey’s Cafe. In this maneuver Naylor has not only bridged two different textual plots, but also manipulated yet again the element of time, splicing the 1940s time period of Bailey’s Cafe with the 1980s and 1990s period highlighted in Mama Day. In so doing, Naylor nudges the reader beyond the parameters of a single text as a means of echoing her apparent assertion that no person, no text, no circumstance is a fixed, or static, entity. Consequently, each encounter must be considered with appropriate comprehensiveness.
In regard to literary prototypes, Naylor models Bailey’s Cafe after Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, successfully bridging the African- American and European literary traditions and disregarding, in yet another context, formerly imposed boundaries of separation. In Chaucer’s work the pilgrims gather at Harry Bailly’s Tabard Inn to embark on a spiritual journey during which they share tales to ease the passage of time. In Naylor’s novel, however, Bailey’s is a virtual cafe (though ostensibly located somewhere in Manhattan) that patrons enter from whatever city has most recently persecuted them. And, Bailey is not the actual name of the proprietor, though he agrees to accept the name since it was left painted on the establishment when he assumed his duties. While Chaucer’s characters depart from and return to the Tabard Inn, Naylor’s characters find themselves in the cafe when they are most in need of sanctuary. And like Chaucer’s, Naylor’s “pilgrims” hail from every social and/or economic echelon.
A DECONSTRUCTIONIST READING
Deconstruction, as a method of literary criticism, strives mainly to uncover the ambiguities, contradictions, and ironies in a given text. This school of thought emerges out of the belief that language itself is inherently imperfect; consequently, meaning is arbitrary. Deconstruction analyzes the language to find the meaning below the surface. According to renowned theorist Ferdinand de Saussure there can be no fixed, known, or stable relationship between a word (symbol, or signifier) and the object (or signified) to which the word supposedly refers. For Saussure, the relationship is purely arbitrary, as imperfect human beings have assigned meanings to words as a means of trying to communicate, but there is no natural, or inherent connection. For example, cat has no real connection to the feline creature it conjures up in our minds. And to be sure, in another language a different symbol would attempt to call up the same object or image.
If language is imperfect in this way, says the deconstructionist, then whole texts composed of this flawed language are also subject to faults. It is the task of the deconstructionist to expose these various gaps, contradictions, ambiguities, and ironies. Mark Twain’s famous protagonist and title character, Huck Finn, lends himself to deconstructionist critique and provides a general analysis. Young Huck is the embodiment of contradiction. On the one hand, he functions as a friend to freedom-seeking Jim. On the other hand, Huck is still influenced by a racist, slave-holding society that would rather see Jim dead than free. Throughout the novel Huck vacillates from one opinion to the other, seeming for some readers to be confused and inconsistent. However, the deconstructionist reader would find Huck’s contradictions not problematic, but relevant as they unmask a truth about the society that has shaped Huck. The slaveholding society, too, is fraught with contradiction and ambiguity. It simultaneously espouses civility while engaging in barbarism. The deconstructionist would also critique the use of slave in reference to Jim. Though Jim is called a slave, he does not behave like a slave (he believes he deserves to be free). In fact, slave best describes the actual slaveholders, who are “enslaved” by a system that suppresses their own humanity,a circumstance quite evident in their very act of slave-holding. A deconstructionist analysis allows the reader to assess more fully some of the subtleties and ironies Twain is exposing about antebellum America.
Deconstructionist theory is helpful in analyzing Bailey’s Cafe but not in the typical way. Usually the critic, or theorist, would strive to uncover the contradictions, or inconsistencies, in the actual text, or narrative. But in the case of this novel, understanding deconstruction aids in understanding what Naylor is trying to accomplish. That is, Naylor has, in fact, employed deconstruction as a narrative technique to uncover the ambiguities, flaws, gaps, and contradictions in life in general, and in 1948 America in particular.
The title setting provides the ideal example of Naylor’s strategy. Bailey’s sits on the margin, with the real world on the front side and an abyss (marking “infinite possibility”) in the rear. In this cafe, almost anything can, and does, happen. In that void in the rear of the cafe Mariam gives birth to her son George who offers hope and life in a place where many have lost inspiration by accepting the impositions (labels, burdens) placed on them. The notion of “possibility” that is engendered in that open space (or gap) at the rear of the cafe is central to deconstructionist doctrine. Deconstructionists do not attempt to “destroy” meaning by highlighting ambiguities or contradictions; rather, they strive to uncover a multiplicity of meanings, or possibilities.
Bailey himself is a key figure to this concept of deconstruction. Admitting that his name is not even Bailey, and admitting in the last chapter that the cafe is not even his, he underscores the arbitrariness of labels. Bailey is not the fixed symbol to identify the man, or person, he is. It is useful only in this particular story, but in another context, he might be called by another name. Or even more important is the fact that the symbol is less important than the signified. That is, in this case the person underneath the label is more important than the label. But in order to appreciate this fact, one must be willing to get to know the person and not be influenced, or even discouraged, by the mere label.
Bailey’s wife Nadine offers another perfect study in deconstructionist characterization. Rejecting all preconceptions of standard behavior, Nadine is one who demands that her uniqueness be accepted. As Bailey critiques, although most important happenings are “below the surface [also a deconstructionist tenet], other people do come up for air and translate their feelings for the general population now and then. Nadine doesn’t bother. You figure her out or leave her alone” (19). Nadine does not allow for a mere “surface” reading of her personality. Of course, one could try to define her by assessing her only superficially, but one would not have an accurate appraisal of her individual personality. Early in their courtship Bailey even makes the mistake of trying to understand Nadine by evaluating her on what he considers normal behaviors. Concerned that she is not enjoying herself on one of their dates, Bailey questions her on her constant refusal to smile, only to receive the following response: “But what does that [smiling] have to do with being pleased?” (17). Completely miffed, Bailey is at a loss for words. However, Nadine has, in essence, deconstructed one aspect of acceptable human behavior. The smile could be read as a mere symbol that, in Nadine’s estimation, has no bearing on her actual mood (read “signified”). And in the same way that Saussure examines arbitrariness as a result of moving from one language to another (with a different set of symbols, or signifiers), Nadine’s seemingly bizarre response is also subject to the same examination. In another culture, or language, her smiling might in fact have nothing to do with being pleased.
Practically every element in this novel serves to subvert accepted ideas of reality and meaning. In this way Naylor forces readers to reassess their own personal notions of normalcy and to reclaim a pattern of learning that appreciates questions as much as it does easy answers.
Bailey’s Cafe. New York: Harcourt, 1992. Rpt. New York: Vintage, 1993.
America, February 13, 1993: 17–18.
Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 6, 1992: K8.
Book World, October 11, 1992: 5.
Boston Globe, October 21, 1992: F77.
Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1992: sec. 14, p. 6.
Detroit News & Free Press, September 20, 1992: F7.
Ebony, December 1992: 18.
Guardian, July 30, 1992: B27.
Kenyon Review, 15 (1993): 197.
Kirkus Review, June 15, 1992.
Library Journal, September 1, 1992: 215.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 27, 1992: 14.
New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1992: 11–12.
Obsidian II 8 (1993): 111–15.
Publishers Weekly, June 15, 1992.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, September 20, 1992: 1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 25, 1992: C5.
Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 1992: 20.
Times-Picayune, October 18, 1992: E9.
USA Today, November 5, 1992: D4.
Washington Post Book Review, October 11, 1992: 5.
Washington Times, August 30, 1992: B8.
Women’s Review of Books, February 1993: 15–16.
Source: Wilson, C. E. (2001). Gloria Naylor: A critical companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.