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THE MEN OF BREWSTER PLACE.\o7 By Gloria Naylor (Hyperion: 174 pp., $22.95)\f7

April 26, 1998|RICHARD EDER | Richard Eder is book critic for The Times

Gloria Naylor has gone back to Brewster Place, that gritty, urban alley of black hardship and struggle whose women she celebrated in her first novel 15 years ago. This time she has sought to evoke the men.

"The Women of Brewster Place" told of the pain that life and men inflict on black women. The new book treats the pain that life and women inflict on black men. The first, however tragic its stories, was a celebration of endurance and heroism, with a flickering edge of myth to its realities. The second, much less certain in tone and style, is closer to a dirge, even when it grits its teeth and tries to celebrate.

At the start it seems as though Naylor will not only complement the powerful thrust of her first book but fulfill it. There is at the very beginning an incantation taken straight from "Women." The repetition is welcome: Not only is it a passage of shining beauty but, setting scene and place, it acts as a link. Whether the stories tell of men or women, the everyday pulse of Brewster Place remains the coming and going of the women who labor there:

"Nutmeg arms leaned over window sills, gnarled ebony legs carried groceries up double flights of steps, and saffron hands strung out wet laundry on backyard lines."

Immediately we hear the voice of Ben, the wine-soaked janitor who has emptied Brewster's stinking garbage and swept its crumbling steps for three decades. In "Women" he was a brief, harsh interlude narrated in the third person; here Naylor--acknowledging that she'd killed him off and is bringing him back--gives him a story and a language of his own. It is a fortunate resurrection: Nothing else in "Men" comes up to the power and beauty of the Ben section.

He speaks up for the men. Not all of them cheated or skipped while their women kept things going; many stayed despite the pain. Naylor gives him a memorable plea:

"Who's got it worse, the Him with nothing in his pockets, scared to turn the knob on the door; or the Her waiting on the other side to stretch that nothing--once again--for supper? . . . There's a lot of sad things in this world; but a poor man having to keep looking into the eyes of a poor woman with no earthly reason why is one of the saddest things I know."

He tells of his grandfather, born a slave and bitter since the day in his childhood when the overseer raped and killed a slave girl, the master did no more than rebuke him and--worst of all--the other blacks remained silent even among themselves. "That is when he understands--freedom or no freedom--that his people are doomed." Ben recalls the old man sitting on the porch of his Tennessee shack with a closed Bible on his lap. "I'm only opening this Bible when someone shows me the place where it says white people is going to hell."

Ben's own life as a sharecropper ends after the white landowner begins abusing Ben's daughter, who works for him as a maid. Ben's wife, accepting their abased condition, screams at him for objecting. He imagines killing her; instead he moves north.

The episode occupies a stunning five pages. Ben's first-person, present-tense narration is stronger than the third-person, past-tense account in "Women." Otherwise, perplexingly, it is the same, word for word. It is more than a matter of the brief linking quote about the "nutmeg arms" mentioned earlier; it is a wholesale lifting--admittedly improved--and neither the reason nor the purpose is clear.

What is clear, unfortunately, is that from here on, "The Men of Brewster Place" grows thinner and weaker. It turns into a series of vignettes, increasingly didactic, whose lessons have barely the life of a sermon anecdote.

One, though flimsy, has some charm. Basil, the young man who, in "Women," lost his mother's house when he skipped the bail she'd pledged it against, comes back with the money he'd worked for years to save up. She's dead by then; he tries to atone by acting as careful father to two little boys whose slatternly mother he marries. It is a reversal of the African American stereotype: The woman plays around, the man tries to hold the family together.

There is a wispy sketch of a mentally handicapped boy who plays brilliant blues all day on the piano. It is hastily put together; rather than trying to make Jerome real, the author seems to have invented him to invoke a tutelary musical mood for her Brewster Place.

There is the story of Eugene, a longshoreman who discovers he is gay. During a climactic scene with his wife, their baby daughter pushes a metal prong into a socket and electrocutes herself; afterward Eugene goes to a transsexual dominatrix who specializes in beatings. It is melodrama without character or point.

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