Black Laughter in an Offshore Showoff Novel : MAMA DAY by Gloria Naylor (Ticknor & Fields: $17.95; 311 pp.)

Brown's latest book, "Starting From Scratch" (Bantam), is a different kind of writer's manual.

God created the universe in six days. It took her longer, but Gloria Naylor has created her own universe in "Mama Day."

The novel's title is the pet name of the most powerful figure in Willow Springs, a fictional Southern island. Miranda Day, born in 1895, is the great-aunt of Cocoa Day, a young, too-smart woman who moves to New York City.

Just why Cocoa would want to live among both the cold and the Yankees mystifies the residents of Willow Springs. Mama Day figures, observing the male inhabitants of the island, that there have to be better men in New York, even if they do talk funny.

Cocoa does find a husband, although her real intention was to find a job. Throughout the novel, Cocoa's observations run an uncharitable but accurate course. At a New York party after a weary day of job hunting, Cocoa remarks that finding employment might have been easier when want ads were listed under "colored" and "white." Attacked for wanting to bring back segregation, she thinks, "Where had it gone? I just wanted to bring the clarity about it back--it would save me a whole lot of subway tokens."

Since Willow Springs is an imaginary island off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, Naylor can turn the world upside down. The descendants of the slaves of white Bascomb Wade (murdered by Mama Day's great-grandmother) own their own land. If set on the mainland, this twist could not be possible since South Carolina and Georgia had laws preventing slaves from owning land. The land gives people power and place, and no resident of Willow Springs will sell to an outsider.

The world is also turned upside down in that the women possess the real power, and are acknowledged as having it.

This doesn't mean that Mama Day and her sister Abigail don't resort to feminine wiles to get their way. Cocoa, watching her husband, George, manipulated by her grandmother and great-aunt, thinks, "You've been allowed to overhear the quiet whisper about how marvelous you are, to witness glimpses of melting awe at the strength of your back, your arms. Yeah, they would lie back now, your ego would take over."

Cocoa straddles two worlds: that of island women and that of mainland women--which is to say quasi-men, for mainland women have forgotten their mysteries. She struggles to make herself whole, to find a synthesizing power.

Other characters struggle with their search for power. Dr. Buzzard, a moonshine maker and quack doctor, parodies the women's power. Ruby is an example of women's power serving the self which is a form of evil. And everyone's power in Willow Springs was born with Sapphire Wade in 1799, the "witch" who killed the Master.

Into this upside-down world comes George Andrews, Cocoa's new husband. George's power comes from his logical Western mind. He is an engineer and values precision. He is also an orphan cut off from his roots, and therefore beguiled by Willow Springs where bloodlines can be traced through the centuries.

George's scientific outlook does not prevent him from possessing a sharp sense of his own emotional life. One of the ironies of "Mama Day" is that Cocoa gets angry with him for not being more overtly emotional. She can't understand that he is never going to display his emotions the way she displays hers. George says that living with a female is "a day-to-day balancing act, and I really enjoyed the challenge. Because the times I got it right, your being different made all the difference in the world."

George also thinks, "Only a fool would spend his life looking for some dream woman. The right woman is the one you can live with, not the one in your head."

George is the linchpin of "Mama Day." His rational mind allows the reader to experience the island as George experiences it. Mama Day and Cocoa are of the island and therefore less immediately accessible to the reader.

The turning point of the book comes when George is asked not only to believe in Mama Day's power but to act on it. Cocoa is desperately ill. A hurricane has washed out the bridge so that no mainland doctor can be summoned. Only Mama Day can show George the way to save his wife. He is told to go into the chicken coop and search in the northwest corner for the nest of an old red hen. He is to bring back to Mama Day what he finds there. He tries to do as he is told, but George needs a quantifiable result. He misses the symbolism of the eggs, of the old hen, and of the objects he must carry into the hen house. And so he "fails," but his action allows his wife to live even though the result of this task is horrible for him.

The formula for heterosexual salvation in conventional novels is for the man and woman either to understand one another and live happily ever after or to understand each other and realize they can't live together. The key is thinking, not necessarily feeling. Not so here. George must let go of his rigidity, his "male" mind. When he can't do that, he sacrifices himself on the altar of love. Success is a form of surrender: the opposite of the desire to control.

When you read "Mama Day," and surely you will read it, "surrender" to it. Don't worry about finding the plot. Let the plot find you. The different voices are beautifully realized, but Naylor's technique can be a confusing one to read. Occasionally the narrator's voice is not so cleanly, stylistically marked, and the reader must press on doggedly before knowing who is speaking, realizing that a plot is developing through these fragmented viewpoints.

A writer's first work of fiction is usually a surprise to the reader and the writer, too. A writer's second book is almost always a disappointment. A writer's third novel determines whether the writer has a real career. It's also the show-off novel because the writer is beginning to feel her/his power, but the lessons of self-restraint are up the road.

"Mama Day" is Naylor's show-off novel. She has a dazzling sense of humor, rich comic observation and that indefinable quality we call "heart." She has a lot to show off.

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