Speaking with Jerome Tarshis in 1974, Ernest J. Gaines talked about his desire to write a story with “the barber shop type of thing.” Looking at James Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” as an example, Gaines told Tarshis, “I think [it] is one of the greatest short stories that I’ve ever read. It’s the most universal of his work; it’s the kind of thing I’d like to do, the barber shop type of thing: you get together and everybody talks.” Joyce wrote about Dublin in the same manner that Gaines wanted to write about his home of southern Louisiana. Gaines wanted to tell the stories of those who lived, and continue to live, on False River. With the novella The Tragedy of Brady Sims, Gaines masterfully accomplishes the “barber shop type of thing” in relating the stories not just of Brady Sims, but also of the community at large.
One of Gaines’s strengths has always been the way he seamlessly weaves multiple voices into a narrative. Gaines’s devotion to communal form and his listening skills work together as an antidote to Southern ignorance, the ignorance engineered from above to divide along racial, ethnic, and class lines.
Twenty-four years before the publication of The Tragedy of Brady Sims, Gaines incorporated “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” into his 1993 classic, A Lesson Before Dying. Grant Wiggins, the novel’s narrator, recalls how Joyce’s story taught him to listen to the voices around him. While watching men at the Rainbow Club reenact the exploits of Jackie Robinson, Grant begins to think back to Joe Louis in the squared circle before moving to his memories of college. He recalls a “little Irishman” who came to speak to him and his class. The man had told them that “regardless of race, regardless of class, that story [“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”] was universal.”
Not being able to find the book, Grant had asked his literature teacher to get him a copy, which the professor procured from the nearby white university in the same town. Grant read the story; he could not figure out, however, why the little Irishman had said the story was universal. Grant pondered what “Irishmen meeting in a room and talking politics” had to do with America. Years later, Grant began to understand. He “began to listen, to listen closely to how [the people] talked about their heroes, how they talked about the dead and about how great the dead had once been.” This is what Gaines does throughout his oeuvre: he listens and relates what he hears to the world.
In A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and the short story “Just Like A Tree” (1968), Gaines has different characters voice each chapter or section, so the moments when perspectives shift are obvious. Even when Gaines uses the first person in his texts, the works become polyvocal, as in Of Love and Dust (1967), in which he masterfully moves from a central narrator, Jim Kelly, to the perspectives of Sun Brown, Aunt Ca’line, Pa Bully, Aunt Margaret, and others.
He accomplishes this in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) from the very beginning, when he reveals that Pittman’s story will be recounted not just from her own recollections but from the community as well. The editor of Miss Jane’s story notes, “I should mention here that even though I have used only Miss Jane’s voice throughout the narrative, there were times when others carried the story for her.” While the account is given primarily in Pittman’s voice, we do not know when these other voices and perspectives enter and leave the narrative. The Tragedy of Brady Sims is no different; even though the novella has only two narrators—Louis Guerin and Sheriff Mapes—multiple voices arise, such as those of Lucas Felix, Joe Celestin, and Frank Jamison.
From the outset, we know that The Tragedy of Brady Sims will end with death. The novella opens as Brady’s son, Jean-Pierre, accompanied by police officers, is walking out of a courtroom. As they leave, Brady stands up and shoots his son point-blank, killing him on the spot. The officers approach Brady, and he tells them to have Sheriff Mapes come and pick him up at his house in two hours. Left unstated is why the officers let him go, but this seems tied to the unique role that Brady has played in their community. This scene sets the whole narrative in motion.
Taking place in the same region as all of Gaines’s works—the fictional Bayonne, Louisiana—and told mainly from the perspective of Louis Guerin, a black reporter for the local paper, the novella traces Brady Sims’s history and that of the community from around the time of World War II to an unspecified point in the late 20th century. After the shooting at the courthouse, Guerin’s boss tells him to write a human-interest story about Sims, so Louis ends up at Lucas Felix’s barbershop, a place where men gather, sometimes to get a haircut, “but most times just to have a place to come and talk.”
Guerin sits down in the barbershop and asks Lucas Felix, Sam Hebert, Joe Celestine, Frank Jamison, and the shop’s intellectual, Sweet Sidney, about Sims’s history. Guerin listens as the men talk about Sims, the man whom the community chose to make sure their children did not die or get sent to Angola prison. Jamison talks about how the community wanted Brady to control the children and to keep them out of trouble, because “none of Brady’s kids ever got into trouble.”
Sims agreed to serve as the community’s disciplinarian, protecting its children from a life in jail or even death. The men in Felix’s shop talk about the children that Sims punished, Sims’s family, and Sims’s son, Jean-Pierre, who went to California, returned, and got arrested for robbing a bank. Rather than see Jean-Pierre sent to Angola, Sims shoots him in open court. Sims exists, in essence, as a police force for the community, making sure that its children do not become trapped in a system that continually subjugates them.
Overall, The Tragedy of Brady Sims hits all the notes of Gaines’s other works. It tackles black migration before and after World War II, via Jamison and Celestine’s constant arguments about what caused individuals to leave during the Great Migration: the war or the tractor. It traces Jean-Pierre’s movement to California and back, even though we do not see what happens to him out West. This movement echoes that of Jackson Bradley in Catherine Carmier (1964) and of Grant Wiggins in A Lesson Before Dying. It presents the tension between the rural and the urban that appears in texts such as In My Father’s House (1978) and “Just Like a Tree.” It tackles racial segregation and class tensions in the community of Bayonne, even bringing Sheriff Mapes into the narrative.
Mapes, of course, appears in A Gathering of Old Men as Bayonne’s sheriff, who seeks to maintain order after the murder of Beau Boutan. Unlike in that novel, in The Tragedy of Brady Sims Gaines provides Mapes with a narrative section in which we hear his voice from a first-person perspective. This move rounds out the Mapes we’ve encountered in Gaines’s earlier novel by showing his interactions with Stella, the black woman he is seeing, and with Sims, whom he invites to go hunting with wealthy white men from the community. With Mapes, Gaines adds to the white perspectives he’s presented in earlier texts via characters such as Lou Dimes, Tee Jack, Anne-Marie Duvall, Tee Bob Samson, and others. Gaines achieves here what he has throughout his career: a portrait that shows the humanity of everyone in the community.
Throughout his oeuvre, Gaines listens and relates what he hears to the world.
The majority of the novella occurs in Felix’s barbershop, but Mapes’s section, only eight pages long, forms a central aspect of the story. We see Sims and Mapes as friends. Mapes even thinks, “His skin is black, mine is white—and he’s my friend.” We see the “idle white rich”—to take a phrase from Catherine Carmier—who ski on the river and sit “in their stately rockers,” not even acknowledging the servants who wait on them. We see the deep-seated racism of those who elevated Mapes, and two previous generations of his family, to the sheriff’s office.
When Mapes informs Benny Lopes that Sims will come hunting and sleep in the same room with them, Lopes asks, “You’ve gone fucking crazy, Mapes? Your grandpa and your pa must be turning over in their graves. Your family has been sheriff of this parish since the end of the Civil War—for a hundred years. You want to bring that to an end?” Lopes’s questions and comments highlight the power he and the other men in the hunting group maintain. The insinuation here, of course, is that Mapes and his family have achieved their position based on the assistance of the area’s wealthy white landowners.
During a news conference at the end of the novella, Mapes sums up Sims’s story, telling the crowd about the man he called his friend: “He was a man some people would say was too hard. He lived in hard times—and the burden we put on him wasn’t easy. Yes, we. That includes myself. If we had done more, his burden wouldn’t have been so heavy.” Even though Mapes considered Sims his friend, Mapes nevertheless wielded a power given to him by those above him.
The ways in which the wealthy prey upon the poor, no matter if they are black, white, Cajun, or Creole, is something that Gaines has explored constantly over the past 50 years. Before the Cajun Albert Cluveau assassinates Ned Douglass in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, he tells Miss Jane, “They say: ‘Albert Cluveau, this your patrol. … If we say, Albert, stop that nigger, Albert, you stop him.’” Cluveau never directly identifies whom he means by “they,” but we know that the pronoun refers to rich white landowners who do not want Ned causing them trouble with his political activities and the school he’s building.
While Cluveau does not challenge his role as a pawn for wealthy whites, Gil Boutan, in A Gathering of Old Men, directly confronts the ways that white landowners maintain control by pitting black people and Cajuns against one another. He tells Candy Marshall, the owner of Marshall Plantation, “You never liked any of us [Cajuns]. Looking at us as if we’re a breed below you. But we’re not, Candy. We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Your folks had a break, mine didn’t, that’s all.” Gil’s comment brings to the forefront his recognition that Candy, as a white landowner, views both Cajuns, like Gil, and black men as substantially beneath her.
What Gaines does when he has characters like Mapes, Boutan, and Cluveau speak about class divisions is to illuminate something W. E. B. Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction in America (1935): “Indeed, the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863.” The white elite’s pitting of groups against one another to maintain power continues today, as Keri Leigh Merritt recently pointed out: “America’s white elite have successfully modernized age-old strategies of using racism to prevent the formation of a broad coalition of people along class lines.”
Gaines has addressed these issues over the course of his career, and now, more than ever, we need to understand these “age-old strategies” and directly confront them. How better to do so than by sharing stories across the divide, making the people in a community aware of one another and the shared challenges they face? Gaines has commented that he writes “for the black and white youth of the South” because he wants “the black kid to understand who he is,” and he wants “the white kids to understand what the black kid is.”1 Without that basic understanding, we are all still caught in Sims’s tragedy.
This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel.
- “Oral Tradition and Literature,” an interview with Marcia Gaudet, in Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft, by Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton (Lousiana State University Press, 1990), p. 14. ↩