RAYMOND ANDREWS is at least as much a fabulist, sociologist, and historian as he is a novelist. In two previous novels and in Baby Sweet's he has written of the town of Appalachee and of Muskhogean County in the Piedmont Belt of North Georgia. Himself a black man and the son of a sharecropper, Andrews has a deep and intricate understanding of the small southern town, and displays this understanding not only in passages of exposition but also in the hearts of his narratives, in which the characters are larger than life and often seem to represent phenomena as much as they do flesh and blood human beings.
As much a part of the novels as any of the characters is the third-person narrator, who is colloquial and chatty but also elegant in his turn of phrase. Andrews' writing stems from a black oral tradition and could be effectively read aloud. Often, in fact, paragraphs or passages end in refrainlike exclamations, after which one can imagine the listeners--seated around a table or hunkered down on a porch--erupting into gales of laughter: Lord, ain't it the truth! Have mercy! Honey, hush!
Baby Sweet's centers on a single day, Independence Day, 1966, which is the 40th wedding anniversary of the couple who constitute the unofficial "first family" of Muskhogean County, Mr. and Mrs. John Morgan, Senior. It is also, and far more importantly, the opening day of Appalachee's first "official" whorehouse, Baby Sweet's. Very appropriately, Andrews uses as his epigraph a familiar poem by Gwendolyn Brooks--"I've stayed in the front yard all my life./I want a peek at the back"--because the main appeal of this house is that it will cater to white customers with black prostitutes, a form of integration that has never required a Civil Rights Act.
The house is the brainchild of John Morgan, Junior, who was born on the sequestered Morgan Hill but has spent most of his days trying to experience Appalachee's low life. He fell in love with a poor white girl and with a black servant, had his first sexual experience with the town's black whore, passed through a bohemian period as an artist and even spent some time as a hillbilly in overalls, the town's most prominent "loony tick." In a way, of course, he is simply typical of second-generation wealth, doing everything except what Daddy says to do. When John Junior finally does come around to the world of commerce, he does so by opening a brothel.
Opening day at the whorehouse gives Andrews the chance to do one of the broad set pieces he loves so well; virtually the whole town is present in one way or another. There is the cynical whore who works only for money, the sweethearted whore who believes she is performing a service, the overanxious bouncer whose vocabulary consists mostly of one word (a common obscenity), the crowd of black onlookers on the porch of a nearby funeral parlor. Probably the most important character is the white girl who unexpectedly shows up on a motorcycle, who says she is the third whore and that she wants to serve the black community ("Amen for Civil Rights!") and who eventually, in telling her story, ties this novel up with Andrews' two previous ones. Though she arrives late, and doesn't tell her story until the last third of the novel, she is in many ways its central character.
Baby Sweet's has the vices that accompany its virtues. Its voice is unique, but also never varies, and while it seems perfect for our black and apparently male narrator, it does not sound quite right in the mouth of a white woman. Andrews also tends to be haphazard in construction; long passages of exposition precede and interrupt his central scene, and, while these passages are in many ways the most interesting and entertaining in the novel, one longs at times for a more dramatic center.
One reads Andrews, however, for his raucous and robust humor, his really profound knowledge of the South, his ultimately accepting and benign vision--of a world in which blacks and whites sometimes hate and mistreat one another but ultimately arrive at an understanding-- and most of all for the entertaining voice that tells the stories. As were his earlier novels, Baby Sweet's is illustrated by his brother Benny Andrews, whose exaggerated line drawings seem a perfect complement to his brother's prose. One has the feeling that any minor quibble about this novel would be interrupted by the narrator with a shout of derision and a hoot of laughter. Lord, have mercy! Honey, hush!