James Baisden’s Broadway Nights—Mas on the Avenue is a delightful collection of Trini reminiscences strung together as a coherent narrative not unlike long-standing, highly-acclaimed works of the kind.
There is abundant evidence of what the author proposes to be a judicious mix of sheer fiction, fantasy, and “old stylised memories” that “gel” into what indeed turns out to be what Baisden hopes to be “an enjoyable, thought-provoking anthology of short stories.” Readers won’t be disappointed.
In her foreword, educationist Kathleen Robinson captures the bitter-sweet nature of Baisden’s nostalgia as “lamentation; bemoaning a spatial and temporal loss of essence and sentience” even as there are instances of what she accurately calls “chest-ripping humour.”
Yet, the author rarely descends into mawkish sentimentality nor does he rely on the unduly salacious to extract hearty laughter.
For sure, Baisden is acutely aware of sound technique to balance the emotional scales. His introductory chapter, for instance, employs a descriptive wordiness recognised by some as emblematic of some of VS Naipaul’s later works.
By the time you get to The Little Tobago Initiation and, later, to Highlow’s Cricket Bat, there is greater economy and urgency in the language. “I first-bat! I first-bat!” opens the Highlow story, leading to an unexpected end featuring the likes of Ma Carrington, the preacher-woman. There are those who would be prone to break a rib off a distant, similar memory, and others simply because the story is just so damn funny.
Contrastingly, Walking Alone in the Dark brings to the table a multi-layered story capable of being metaphorically read as both an exploration of the human condition and as an attempt at addressing internal emotional conflict.
Walkalone, in a sense, becomes an “Everyman” who engages the Avenue as both an insider and an outsider. “He didn’t often socialise on the Avenue but seemed to have tacitly reserved the right to do so whenever he wished,” appears to also be the author’s prerogative throughout the collection.
Few chapters but The Many and Varied Faces to introduce you to some of Baisden’s more colourful and fanciful characters. And who, with a background in community life in T&T in the 1970s and 1980s, would not recognise the best of them?
Chanellor, for instance, is a “brawny six-footer, with bushy beard and moustache, who sat at the Library Corner all day, blowing his trumpet.” And the hopeless stereotyped “Chinese gentleman”, Ching Maka Hai who cussed the jeering children in his language.
There’s also Sam Callam, a bottle collector, who helped out on Sundays at church, and Twirler, the “old Indian drifter” with a romantic past. And the even “madder” Laughing Looney.
Baby Doll is the eccentric female vagrant (who appeared to have had much better days as a potential catch) who danced the night away “cheek to cheek, tile by tile” with out-of-towner Lanky, much to his eventual shame.
Broadway Nights is defined by the strength of both Baisden’s well-developed central and marginal characters, resident within a physical community for which the author spares no descriptive expense.
The Many and Varied Faces puts this skill to the test, new people alongside ubiquitous regulars such as Ranee, Ma Carrington, Seddy, Snowflake, Safee and others. Read the book and see them unveiled.
This is a highly commendable work that can find pride of place alongside other solid nostalgic Caribbean reads.
Cover art and other images in the book are the creations of artist, Michele-Geena Joseph.