Bound for Glory

More than anything, Leon Forrest wanted to be recognized as a great writer. Now, ravaged by cancer, he raced death to finish his final novel

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Leon Forrest
Leon Forrest
The cancer had attacked his body with fury. The tumors in his stomach had grown so large that he could slip his long, too-thin fingers into the tuck of his robe and feel the sickening lumps in his belly, feel the disease forcing itself upon him with the slow but certain coming of winter. So he would pull his fingers out of the robe, put them back on the keys of his electric typewriter, and return to work. More than anything, Leon Forrest wanted to finish another novel before he died. He knew it would be close.

Each day his growing weakness made him think differently about his writing. Should he cut that sentence short and move on? Should he let his imagination dance a few minutes with allusions to Shakespeare or Joyce? Should he take his reader inside another fictional South Side bar to meet the characters there, let that barber tell one more joke, permit the preacher to preach a little longer on the bliss-giving, chaos-spawning power of God?

Do I have the time? he asked himself.

Some of the nation’s greatest living writers considered Forrest a master. Still, not many people have ever read his masterpiece, the 1,135-page Divine Days. Those who have know quite well that Forrest loved to ramble. Conversations run on for dozens of pages, and stories grow out of stories like petals from a rose. But now, in his head, when he wasn’t actually playing the song on the turntable, Forrest could hear Louis Armstrong, with a mouthful of gravel and stardust, singing: Oh, didn’t he ramble, till the butcher cut him down.

Asking Leon Forrest not to ramble would have been like asking old Satchmo himself not to smile so much—and stop blowing that horn while you’re at it. Leon Forrest made up his mind when he was still in high school that he would be a writer—no, make that a serious writer—and nothing would get in his way. Not a fire that destroyed precious copies of Divine Days, not the critics who said his book was long-winded, not the pleas from his wife to save his energy. Now, what about the cancer?

By Dawn’s Early Light: The Meteor in the Madhouse. That’s what he planned to call his final novel, though when he began it five years earlier he had no reason to suspect it would be his last. The book would be comprised of several novellas; at first he thought it would be only four, but early last autumn, when his health seemed to stabilize a bit, he increased it to five. He was building his book like a layer cake, more certain of its flavor than its size. He insisted that his sickness would not change the work’s content, and that the joyful spirit that pulsed throughout his crazy-quilt world of Black magic fiction—the meteor in his madhouse, so to speak—would not be dimmed.

Forrest, only 60 years old, was still stubborn as a mule. So stubborn that two years ago, when his wife suggested that they consult with doctors who might offer alternative treatments for his cancer, he said no. He would not be taken away from his writing, and he would not undergo any treatments that might weaken him more than the chemotherapy and radiation already had.

Ernest Hemingway once said that a writer faces his own mortality every time he puts words to the page, and Forrest seemed bent on proving it—though perhaps more literally than Hemingway intended. “It’s a war,” he said, laughing a laugh that had once been delicious and now, without much force, seemed gently sad. “On the other hand, you see, you’re always involved in a war as a writer. There’s a deadline. Then there’s the ultimate deadline. Haha. That’s what I’m up against.”

But in his last weeks of life, when that ultimate deadline was still very much looming and the completion of his novel was not at all certain, Forrest did something that seemed to make little sense at the time: He invited me to his home and, later, to his hospital bed for a long series of interviews. Forrest had been one of my teachers at Northwestern University, and we had remained loosely in touch through the years. But we were not close friends. We had seen each other only two or three times during the past decade. I had difficulty understanding, even as we sat there talking about his life, his work, and the work yet to be done, why he didn’t have better things to do. Nevertheless, I was delighted at the chance to take one more class.

* * *

The door to Forrest’s apartment in Evanston was already open. Nothing for me to knock on. I inched forward as a small voice called me into the room. “Come in, come in.” In 1983, when Forrest stood in front of a blackboard lecturing our class on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, his voice sprang with the spark and imagination of a fast-flying, jump-jiving trumpet solo. His accent was half Mississippi, half South Side Chicago, and his range climbed several octaves from deep and sexy to high-pitched and sweet. His literary range was even wider, as he filled his solos/lectures with quotes from Dostoyevsky and Bessie Smith, Faulkner and Billie Holiday, Hemingway and Lead-belly. The man could swing.

I never expected so much power from such a small, mild-looking man. He stood about five feet seven, with a pudgy belly, a broad chin, and a receding line of wavy brown hair; his skin was almond-colored, with pink undertones; his eyes were big and light brown; his clothes tended toward tweeds, slacks, and comfortable shoes, and if the outfits happened to match, so much the better. His glasses were the black plastic scholarly kind parodied at the time by the New Wave rocker Elvis Costello. Overall, he had the warm, cuddly look of a teddy bear.

Now, as I went through the door of his home on a cool Tuesday afternoon in late September more than a dozen years later, Forrest sat at the far end of his living room in a blue wing chair that made him appear tiny. In fact, he had lost at least 50 pounds since I’d seen him last. So much weight had fallen off his body that I could count most of the bones in his arms and watch the muscles in his neck quiver and strain when he shifted in his seat. He did not rise to greet me. Sharp lines of light sneaked through the drawn curtains, but Forrest sat mostly in the dark. He wore two bathrobes, one with a checkerboard of red and green squares, the other green cotton decorated with golden birds. He sat with his legs crossed, as if trying to maintain a professorial pose.

Forrest had his first operation for colon cancer in 1993, and though the surgery seemed a success, doctors discovered prostate cancer two months later. After that, he underwent hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. For every punch the doctors threw, the cancer found a way to duck and strike back. Now the prostate cancer had spread to his stomach. Forrest wouldn’t say it, but he knew he would be lucky to survive until spring.

“My creativity seems to be bouncing along quite well,” he said through a thin smile. “My physical energy is not where I’d like it to be. I’m only writing about two hours a day, but what can I say? Haha. You know, each man is only given a certain amount of time in life.”

* * *

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