Ernest J. Gaines
by Micah Winters
Ernest J. Gaines's newest novella, The Tragedy of Brady Sims, opens with a gunshot, and spends the majority of its remainder working back to that very gunshot through the life of the man who fired it. Gaines sets this tale, as is his custom, in the southern town of Bayonne, Louisiana. As part of a community mired in racism peripherally (although pointedly) referenced throughout the tale, the black experience portrayed is one that acknowledges but is not confined by the Jim Crow culture in which it exists. The book's black community is seen to thrive in its own way, despite the restrictions placed upon it.
Much of the book's "action" (read: conversation) takes place in a barber shop, a wonderfully rendered image of the cultural status the haircutting institution occupies in southern black society. Men-and only men, we are told by Louis Guerin, the young newspaper reporter who narrates the majority of the book-wander in to Lucas Felix's barbershop, but do not wander out. The lotus blossoms of community and story hold the listeners captive, and the reader feels this. Gaines tells Brady Sims's tale through multiple voices in the barber shop, which blend together to weave a narrative Faulknerian in its complexity and yet delivered in a bare-bones prose that belies the layers of relationships and histories embedded in the stories. The reader can often relate to the out-of-town man who constantly voices his confusion to Louis; he is totally lost among the names and places intended for a familiar audience, and yet feels a deep need to know, to comprehend. It becomes almost a prayer: "Lord, have mercy . . . I want to understand. I really want to understand. I want You to help me understand."
The reader, too, is thrown headlong into a long and complex history of one man, and the picture painted of Brady Sims is one that manages to be wholly sympathetic without looking over the ugly parts of his past or his present. Sims' character emerges as one that is admirable, and yet not comfortable, a typecast the reader is forced to reckon with as more details emerge. Questions of guilt, loyalty, and love wind themselves throughout the narrative, seen through the lens of one complicated life.
For its brevity, The Tragedy of Brady Sims packs a tremendous amount into its page count, and wrestles with ideas of race, history, and the value of a person in fresh and unexpected ways. Even for a writer as established as Gaines, these concepts are crucial and important to deal with in our modern cultural climate, and he gracefully grapples with them in all their complexity here.