Brewster Place is the kind of street where the sidewalk glitters with smashed pints of Four Roses whiskey; the kind of street taxis won't cruise and landlords never visit; the kind of street some people call home. Gloria Naylor centers her radiant first novel, "The Women of Brewster Place," not in a specific city but in the chipped concrete and stinking trash cans of any dead-end slum block. In language as intricately whorled as mahogany, Naylor sculpts profiles of seven women:
". . . they milled like determined spirits among its decay, trying to make it a home. Nutmeg arms leaned over windowsills, gnarled ebony legs carried groceries up double flights of steps and saffron hands strung out wet laundry on back-yard lines."
"The Women of Brewster Place" is no pallid tale of attenuated perception recollected over cappuccino; Naylor is not afraid to grapple with life's big subjects: sex, birth, love, death, grief. Her women feel deeply, and she unflinchingly transcribes their emotions.
The book consists of seven linked stories -- one for each of the women -- that revolve around Brewster Place. Mattie Michael is at its heart. A modern-day Demeter, she cradles the other women of Brewster Place in her heavy arms as though they were her adopted daughters. Old now, Mattie was once as ripe as a stalk of sugar cane in her native Tennessee. Her seduction by a "cinnamon-red" man in a field of basil and wild thyme climaxes as his eyes navigate her body: ". . . his mind slipped down the ebony neck that was just plump enough for a man to bury his nose into and suck up tiny bits of flesh that were almost as smooth as the skin on the top of her full, round breasts . . ."
Born from that herb-patch coupling is Mattie's one weakness, her incomplete, irresponsible son Basil. If she could, she would breathe for him. Only years later, after Basil is charged with manslaughter and skips bail, and she loses the bond, her house, does she recognize, "There was a void in his being that had been padded and cushioned over the years, and now that covering had grown impregnable."
But Etta Mae Johnson, the second of Naylor's women, never spurns Mattie. They "went way back, a singular term that claimed co-knowledge of all the important events in their lives and almost all of the unimportant ones." Naylor's talent glows like beaten copper as she captures the powerful affection, enriched by laughter, between the two women. Like Toni Morrison's "Sula," "The Women of Brewster Place" explores what women feel about each other as friends, as mothers, as daughters and, in one of the stories, "The Two," as lovers. Only Mattie recalls that this fierce Miss Johnson once went by the name "Tut" because the folks back home in Rock Vale, Tenn., used to laugh, "Look a' that baby gal strutting about here like a bantam. You think she'd be the wife of King Tut." For a black woman like Etta Mae, leaving the South meant viewing, in the company of strangers, an awful lot of motel ceilings. She never lost that bold strut, though, nor that wit sharp as rib sauce.
One Brewster Place Persephone doesn't cling to Mattie, however. Kiswana Browne has her own mama, a few blocks away and a world apart. A dreamy woman-child of the black middle class, she and her mother battle over Kiswana's refusal to finish college, to live in a safe neighborhood or even to answer to her Christian name, Melanie. An ardent if ineffectual radical, Kiswana melts before the blowtorch of her mother's pragmatism. Kiswana's tale displays Naylor's comic gifts, necessary in a book filled with pain. The author gently twits Kiswana's fanaticism without putting down her idealism. When the daughter wrongly accuses her mother of being "a white man's nigger who's ashamed of being black," Mrs. Browne responds with a stirring retelling of a proud family history: "My grandmother . . . was a full-blooded Iroquois, and my grandfather a free black from a long line of journeymen . . . And my father was a Bajan who came to this country as a cabin boy . . . I am alive because of the blood of proud people who never scraped or begged or apologized for what they were." At the end, this girl with bouncing cornrows observes her mother and realizes about herself that she "was breaking no new trails and would eventually end up just two feet away on that couch. She stared at the woman she had been and was to become."
This sense of a well-ordered universe dies in the face of Lucielia Louise Turner's tragedy. She loses one child to an uncovered electrical socket and another to a man's indifference. Sexually in thrall to a worthless lover, she aborts a baby she truly wants. Naylor captures the hold he has over Lucielia: "The feel of his sooty flesh penetrated the skin of her fingers and coursed through her blood and became one somewhere . . . with her actual being." Lucielia's searing grief almost kills her, but she is saved by Mattie in a moving scene where the older woman bathes the younger one as though she were an infant. Clumsy perhaps, but like a Hardy novel, clumsy with emotional power.
Naylor's potency wells up from her language. With prose as rich as poetry, a passage will suddenly take off and sing like a spiritual:
"She rocked her into her childhood and let her see murdered dreams. And she rocked her back, back into the womb, to the nadir of her hurt, and they found it--a slight silver splinter, embedded just below the surface of the skin. And Mattie rocked and pulled and the splinter gave way, but its roots were deep, gigantic, ragged."
Vibrating with undisguised emotion, "The Women of Brewster Place" springs from the same roots that produced the blues. Like them, her book sings of sorrows proudly borne by black women in America.