Speaking with Jerome Tarshis in 1974, Ernest Gaines spoke about his desire to write a story with “that barber shop type of thing” where people gather around a community center and relate stories about the past and the present. Looking at James Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” as an example, Gaines told Tarshis, “I think is one of the greatest short stories that I’ve 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.” With the novella The Tragedy of Brady Sims(2017), Gaines masterfully accomplishes the “barber shop type of thing.”
One of Gaines’ strengths has always been the manner in which he seamlessly weaves multiple voices into a narrative. In A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and “Just Like A Tree” (1968), Gaines has different characters voice each chapter or section, so the various voices are obvious. However, Gaines’ narratives that center on a first person narrator become polyvocal as well when Gaines masterfully moves from a central narrator such as Jim Kelly in Of Love and Dust (1967) 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 we learn that Pittman’s story will not just be from her own recollections but from the community as well. While primarily told in Pittman’s voice, we do not know when other voices enter and leave. In A Lesson before Dying (1993), Grant Wiggins serves as the narrative voice, but we get the perspectives of Matthew Antoine, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and most importantly Jefferson throughout.
From the beginning, we know that The Tragedy of Brady Sims will end with death. The novella opens in court as Jean-Pierre, accompanied by police officers, walks out of the courtroom. As they leave, Brady Sims stands up and shoots his son point blank, killing him on the spot. The officers approach Brady, and he tells them to have Sherriff Mapes come and pick him up at his house in two hours. This scene sets the whole narrative in motion.
Mainly told from the perspective of Louis Guerin, an African American reporter for the local paper, the novella traces Brady Sims history and the history of the community. After the shooting at the courthouse, Guerin’s boss tells him to write a story for the next day’s paper about Brady, so Brady ends up at Felix’s Barbershop, a place where the men who gather there come to get a haircut sometimes, “but most times just to have a place to talk.”
Guerin sits down in the barbershop and asks Lucas Felix, Sam Hebert, Joel Celestine, Frank Jamieson, and the intellectual of the shop Sweet Sidney about Brady Sim’s history. Guerin listens as the men tell about Brady, the man who the community chose to make sure their children did not die or get sent to Angola. They talk about the children that Brady punished, Brady’s family, and Brady’s son Jean-Pierre who went to California, returned, and got arrested for robbing a bank. Instead of seeing Jean-Pierre sent to Angola, Brady shoots him in open court.
Overall, The Tragedy of Brady Sims hits all of the notes of Gaines’ oeuvre. It tackles African American migration before and after World War II, with Jamieson and Celestine constantly arguing about what caused individuals to leave: 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. It presents the tension between the rural and the urban that appears in Gaines’ works such as In My Father’s House (1978) and again “Just Like a Tree.” It tackles racial segregation and tensions in the community, 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 Beau Boutan’s death. We do not get a chapter devoted to Mapes’ point of view in that novel, but in The Tragedy of Brady Sims, Gaines provides Mapes with a section in the narrative where we hear his voice from a first person perspective. This move adds perspective to the Mapes from Gaines’ earlier novel by showing his interactions with Stella, the African American woman he is seeing, and with Brady, who he invites to go hunting with white men from the community. By showing Mapes’ perspective, as he does with Lou Dimes, Tee Jacques, Anne-Marie Duvall, Tee-Bob Sampson, and more Gaines achieves what he has throughout his career, showing the humanity of everyone: blacks, whites, Cajuns, Creoles in his work.
While the majority of the novella occurs in Felix’s Barbershop, Mapes’ section, only eight pages, forms a central aspect of the story. We see Brady 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” who ski on the river and who sit in their “stately rockers” not even acknowledging the “servants” who wait on them or Brady or Mapes. We see the deep seated racism of those who put Mapes, and four previous generations of his family, in the sheriff’s office. All of these, and more, are themes that Gaines presents in his work.
Overall, The Tragedy of Brady Sims is a timely work. It focuses on the psychological, physical, and generational affects of racism, segregation, and oppression. It presents not just the rural South but also the urban environment (California specifically) as places that need to be navigated in such a way in order to survive. It shows us that while we have moved forward, we have not proceeded nearly far enough to provide equality for all.
During the news conference, Mapes sums up the novella as he tells the crowd about Brady Sims: “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.” The burden remains, no matter how far we have come. How do we eliminate that burden of psychological and physical oppression? That is what The Tragedy of Brady Sims asks us. That is what we must do.