April 19, 1998 Everyone Deserves a Second Chance In her new book, Gloria Naylor offers her male characters just that.

Read the First Chapter Annie Gottlieb Reviews 'The Women of Brewster Place' New York Times Book Review (August 22, 1982)

THE MEN OF BREWSTER PLACE By Gloria Naylor. 173 pp. New York: Hyperion. $22.95.

n Gloria Naylor's 1982 collection of interlinked stories, ''The Women of Brewster Place,'' husbands socked their wives, sons betrayed their mothers, fathers shook their daughters and grabbed them by the hair. In her new book, some of those same bullies and ingrates now return to confess and atone.

''The Men of Brewster Place'' offers them not so much a sequel as a second chance. And Ben, the janitor who lives and works on the block, enjoys the greatest second chance of all -- bludgeoned to death by a distraught rape victim in the earlier book, he is returned to life as a narrator here. He either recounts the travails of the other men or climbs off his ''throne'' on a garbage pail and lets them narrate on their own.

Not wholly linked to one another, the men's stories play off the earlier work. In ''The Women of Brewster Place,'' an omniscient narrator pieces together stories like the patches of a Faith Ringgold quilt. To help blend the books together, Naylor uses a similar -- but ultimately distracting -- technique, reprinting passages from the first book in the second.

By letting these men speak for themselves, Naylor offers us an invitation -- to inhabit a character's voice as if it were our own. In ''The Women of Brewster Place,'' for example, we saw Eugene in the background, brawling with his wife, Ceil, forgetting to help look out for his baby daughter, who was about to stick a fork in an electrical outlet and die as a result. In ''The Men of Brewster Place,'' Eugene is in the foreground, giving us his version of that tragic night and revealing the secret that caused his estrangement from his wife. The last we saw of Basil was when he jumped bail, leaving his mother, Mattie Michael, to forfeit the house she'd put up as bond. Now Basil tells his story after he has eventually come home, contrite, to make restitution. By this time, though, Mattie Michael has died.

Through the voices of Ben, Eugene and Basil, Naylor asks us to believe that men who have just acted rashly and selfishly can return shortly afterward to articulate their wrongs with gentle sadness. The rocking chair for storytellers is gone, replaced by the therapist's couch.

''MY name is Ben. I'm a drunk,'' the book begins. ''I was too much of a coward to go during daylight because she might spot me and I wasn't ready for that,'' Basil says elsewhere, when he comes home to find his mother. ''This visit was just a dress rehearsal for the day I felt I would truly become a man.'' In Eugene's chapter, the word ''faggot,'' dropped into the text like a mantra, sets the stage for his confession to his wife that he is gay: ''I met Bruce on my first job at the docks.''

When Naylor's men center their revelations on their problems -- alcoholism, sterility, feeling shame over the fact that they're gay -- they lack the complexity of the women, who, as characters, are defined by far more. Even when they seek redemption, the men stand little chance of receiving it. After the death of her baby in ''The Women of Brewster Place,'' Ceil is comforted as she sobs in Mattie Michael's arms. After the same death, Eugene seeks out a transvestite who he knows relishes cruelty: ''I had come searching for his type of pain to replace mine. . . . And so I pulled off my shirt and went to my knees. He whipped me until his arms grew tired, specks of my blood covering everything but the tiled ceiling.''

Although she is capable of writing sweeping, musical prose, Naylor does not often let it soar in this volume. She seems most free to do so in one story that bears little connection to ''The Women of Brewster Place'' -- ''Brother Jerome,'' about a retarded boy who is a genius when it comes to playing blues piano. And in the story called ''C. C. Baker,'' she brings to life a young man whose tragic appeal lies in his posturing and self-delusion -- traits that are often more engaging in a fictional character than the willingness to tell all. C. C. Baker, who terrorized Brewster Place and raped a woman in the first book, is torn by conflict in this new one. Instructed to murder his own brother in order to demonstrate loyalty to a gang leader, he closes his eyes and squeezes the trigger, then ''thanks God for giving him the courage to do it. The courage to be a man.''

In the end, it seems clear that the men of Brewster Place -- and their book -- need women to make sense of their lives. The women, book and all, continue to do just fine on their own.

Roy Hoffman is writer in residence at The Mobile (Ala.) Register.

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