This novella by Ernest Gaines begins with a verdict, followed by a crime. A young man is convicted of robbery and murder, and, just as he’s being escorted out of the courtroom, his father, Brady Sims, shoots and kills him. Brady pleads for two hours on his own before he turns himself in, and the sheriff, Mapes, allows it. In the meantime, a young reported named Louis is told to get started on a human interest story about Brady.
To do his research, Louis heads to the town barbershop, where the black men of the community, like so many black men, spend their time, chatting about local happenings, past and present. And their meandering narration forms the core of the book.
The men are ostensibly telling Brady’s story, but their storytelling goes all over the place, including into a running joke about whether it was War or Tractors that sent so many of their young people away. And so, through their stories, we get a sense not just of Brady’s life, but of the sensibilities of the town’s black community.
These are men who know each other well, and they’ve known each other for years. They’re just letting Louis, and us, listen in. Sometimes that makes for frustrating reading, when characters are referred to as “that boy” or some shared history is referred to that an outsider wouldn’t understand. And so the reader doesn’t understand either. Gaines makes clear that this is a deliberate choice because there’s an out of towner hanging out in the barbershop, and he complains about how the story is never getting anywhere.
I think this technique does well at pointing out how outsiders really can’t understand the full story of a community and its particular suffering. Those who aren’t from Bayonne, Louisiana, who won’t understand the community’s history. White people will miss the nuances. The storytelling is not for us. It’s a way that these storytellers maintain their bonds to each other. Others can listen in, but the speakers aren’t going to stop to explain all the details. It makes the storytelling feel more natural, even if, like the out of town listener, I sometimes wanted the rambling to get to where it was going. (If the book had been longer, it might, alas, have been too frustrating for me, so I’m glad it was so short.)
So what do we learn about Brady? We learn that he spent his whole life making sure that his children, and other children in the community, do not end up in the Angola prison. If that means giving them a beating, then so be it. Is he right? Is he wrong? The book doesn’t say. Some of the beatings are severe. But, then again, so is Angola. Mapes speaks at the end about the burden society placed on Brady and how everyone, including him, could have done more. And so the book asks us to take on some of the burden, to try to understand without hand holding, to seek ways to lighten the load.