(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bailey’s Café is the story of a magical place and of the lost souls who have there found, if not redemption, at least a safe haven. As the chapter and section titles suggest, Naylor structures her novel in the form of a jazz performance. The book begins with “Maestro, If You Please,” in which Bailey, as the bandleader, introduces himself; this is followed by “The Vamp,” Bailey’s introduction to his café. The main part of the book is entitled “The Jam,” and Bailey’s Café ends with a short, upbeat chapter appropriately called “The Wrap.”

The novel begins with a first-person narrative by the man whom everyone calls Bailey, after the name of his place of business. Even though Bailey never does mention his real name, he does not omit anything else from his life story. He describes his childhood as the child of African Americans who were the servants of wealthy African Americans, his successful courtship of the beautiful Nadine, his failure in several jobs, and his participation in World War II. What brought Bailey to despair, ironically, was the event that assured him of surviving that war: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Devastated by guilt, Bailey ended up on the wharf in San Francisco, then inexplicably found himself working in a rundown café with Nadine beside him.

As Bailey hastens to point out, his café does not have a geographical location. It moves about, appearing wherever and whenever someone is “hanging on to the edge” and needs a place “to take a breather for a while.” In his second chapter, “The Vamp,” Bailey introduces two “one-note players” who are not ready to look beneath the surfaces of their lives. Thus Sister Carrie, a religious fanatic, pretends to be highly moral, and Sugar Man, a pimp, pretends to be a benefactor of women; actually, both are interested only in controlling others. Although these are only “minor voices,” in Bailey’s words, they...

(The entire section is 802 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Set in 1948, Bailey’s Cafe, Gloria Naylor’s fourth novel, is her self-described “sexual novel.” Similar to The Women of Brewster Place, it tells the tragic histories of female characters who suffer simply because they are sexual. The underlying structure of blues music recasts these feminist rewritings of biblical stories. The characters’ own blues-influenced narrations provide the equivalent of melody, and the male narrator supplies the connecting texts linking one story to another.

The proprietor of Bailey’s Cafe, who is the narrator, sets the pattern by telling how he was saved by Bailey’s Cafe, a magical place. It is a cafe that does not serve customers, and its magic is not the redemptive kind. The cafe provides “some space, some place, to take a breather for a while” by suspending time. Not fixed in any one city, it is “real real mobile,” so that anyone can get there. It features a back door that opens onto a void where patrons re-create scenes to help them sustain life, or, alternatively, to end it. The street on which Bailey’s Cafe may be found contains three refuges that form a “relay for broken dreams”: Bailey’s Cafe, Gabe’s Pawnshop, and Eve’s Boardinghouse and Garden.

Eve transforms her suffering into a haven. She aids only those women who know what it means to “walk a thousand years.” Her boarders include Esther, who hates men because of the sexual abuse she suffered as a...

(The entire section is 431 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Byerman, Keith. Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Includes a chapter comparing the representations of desire in Bailey’s Café and Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992).

Jones, Marie F. Review of Bailey’s Café, by Gloria Naylor. Library Journal 117 (September 1, 1992): 215. Succinct, useful review. Jones argues that the characters and their sufferings determine the direction of the novel. Calls the characterizations in Bailey’s Café Naylor’s most interesting since The Women of Brewster Place.

Kaveney, Roz. “At the Magic Diner.” Review of Bailey’s Café, by Gloria Naylor. Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 1992, 20. An unfavorable review. Kaveney praises the book’s subject matter but argues that Bailey’s Café fails because of its structure. Kaveney calls the novel “a poor book from an admirable writer.”

Naylor, Gloria. “Gloria Naylor.” Interview by Mickey Pearlman. In A Voice of One’s Own: Conversations with America’s Writing Women, by Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Superb interview by a major scholar. Pearlman enters the writer’s home, discusses some interesting biographical matters,...

(The entire section is 453 words.)