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Thursday, September 24, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Naylor's Made It -- Noted Novelist Passes Apprenticeship With Colorful `Bailey's Cafe'

If Eve, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene were alive in 1948, they would have found themselves lingering over coffee and pork chops at a greasy spoon called Bailey's Cafe.

Or so imagines novelist Gloria Naylor, who in her enigmatic and compelling new novel conjures up a kind of last-chance eatery for women (and a few men) in need of a spiritual safe haven.

In an interview here yesterday, Naylor (the National Book Award winner in 1983 for her debut novel, "The Women of Brewster Place") called "Bailey's Cafe" (Harcourt, Brace, Javonovich; $19.95) the completion of "my apprenticeship, my laying the foundation for a career as a writer."

Some foundation. Along with the acclaimed "Brewster Place" (made into a successful four-part TV miniseries, Naylor's follow-ups "Linden Hills" and "Mama Day" garnered warm reviews and avid readers.

Praised by Seattle author Charles Johnson, as "a profoundly talented writer," Naylor's name now routinely appears on the A-list of popular African-American women novelists that includes such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan.

But chatting before her scheduled reading last night at the First United Methodist Church, Naylor - a zaftig, gregarious New Yorker of 42 - discussed her work with a kind of confident humility. And she talked about the fictive characters in "Bailey's Cafe" as though they had a life of their own.

The novel takes place in a restaurant run by a black World War II combat veteran and his no-nonsense wife, Nadine. It's not your average burger joint.

The proprietor's name isn't Bailey, though he's called that. His restaurant exists in an urban limbo-land not found on any map. It serves one entree daily except on weekends, when diners get anything they want. And the clientele is a chorus of eloquent, wounded souls, trying to recover from their own kinds of of biblical hellfire.

"This is a cafe for people who are at the end of the world, in no-win situations," Naylor noted. "It's a tiny breathing space, where you get a chance to reconstruct your life. There's only two choices anyone has when the world burns down around you: start rebuilding from the ashes or give up."

The folks at Bailey's don't quite throw in the towel, though they have every excuse to. There's Peaches, a Mary Magdalene prostitute who scars her beauty so she won't be a prisoner of it, and Jesse, a former middle-class matron turned heroin addict.

The heart-rending Sadie, who retains an aura of dignity despite a life of being abused. And (for welcome comic relief) we have Miss Maple, a straight man who prefers to wear women's "light percale dresses" for some elaborate and fascinating reasons.

Hovering over them is Eve, the crusty guardian angel who runs a boarding house next to Bailey's as a sort of healing waystation/brothel for broken-hearted strays.

To impart their stories - or, as Bailey says, their "snatches of melodies" - Naylor meshes the feminist group portraiture of "Brewster Place" with the mystical overtones of "Mama Day."

"My first image for the book was of this older woman and man dancing on a wharf, to the song `Mood Indigo,' with the sound of the floor boards scraping as they moved," Naylor recalled. "It was an image that made me cry, and it led me to Sadie's story."

Naylor spent two years doing research for the book, and another year writing it. "Early on I thought it was going to be all about prostitutes per se, and I interviewed some women who are in transition from working as prostitutes. But as I got into it, I realized I had bigger fish to fry."

Though several characters earn money through sex, Naylor emphasizes, "the underlying theme is how people define femaleness and female sexuality, how women have been cast in sexual roles since Eve.

"I was inspired by Edith Wharton's `The House of Mirth,' which is about a woman who's considered a prostitute, because of the mere perception that she transgressed sexually. That's what led me to the idea of Eve's boarding house, and how the women who live there don't fit those easy sexual labels used to rein people in."

Though she penned some wrenching descriptions of men tormenting women, Naylor also devised some endearing male characters. One, an elderly Russian Jew, maintains a rewarding bond with the black cafe owner.

"I'm a native New Yorker, and I grew up with Jewish teachers, Jewish neighbors," Naylor said, when asked about that relationship. "I think the tension between blacks and Jews gets blown all out of proportion in the press. What we two peoples have gone through is not the same, but like Bailey and Gabe we can find ways to listen to and respect each other."

Now that she's finished her apprenticeship as a novelist, Naylor is serving one as a dramatist. Through her own One Way Productions, she's raising money for her screen version of "Mama Day," to star Tony-winner Larry Fishburne. And her play based on "Bailey's Cafe" will be read next month at Lincoln Center.

Naylor has another promising idea, too. "I saved every scrap of paper from the second Clarence Thomas confirmation conflirmation hearing, the one with Anita Hill," she confided. "There's something I need to write there, and it has to be a play."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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