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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Soon after he and Marianne married in 1971, Forrest quit Muhammad Speaks and took a high-paying position in the publicity department at AT&T. It’s a chapter in his life he almost never discussed. For the better part of a year, he went to an office and sat in a cubicle and wrote jingles and speeches and whatever else his bosses asked. Marianne watched the life drain out of her husband, and she came to appreciate more than ever how badly he needed to exercise his creative forces. After nine months in the cubicle, Northwestern University, thanks largely to the reviews of his first book, offered him a five-year contract as an associate professor. The Northwestern job freed him to focus more obsessively than ever on his writing. He would begin most mornings at six, write until nine, go teach a class, then return home in the afternoon for reading, writing, and rewriting.

“I’ve always told people I had a legal love affair with Leon, because he was always married to the typewriter, and then the word processor,” Marianne says. The look in her dark brown eyes says she is not joking. She never disturbed him while he was at work, even if he was writing 12 hours a day. She knew that anything that interfered with her husband’s writing would be cast aside. When the commute from Hyde Park to Evanston began to drain his energy, for example, these two lifelong South Siders barely discussed what to do; they simply moved to the North Shore.

They had very different views on literature, and Marianne was not shy about making her opinions heard (she argued in favor of Hemingway on that first date). “It’s not your best; why not set it aside and come back to it?” she learned to say when a particular passage disappointed her. Forrest might agree, grudgingly, or he might go for a walk to blow off steam. But, as Marianne recalls, these were virtually the only unpleasant moments in a long and happy marriage.

In 1977, he published another novel, The Bloodworth Orphans. In response to the critics who said his first novel didn’t have enough characters, he created a huge, complicated cast of orphans, most of them related somehow to one another, and all of them engaged in a tragic search for love. That same year he received tenure at Northwestern. In 1984, he published his third novel, Two Wings to Veil My Face. This story within a story managed to link the stories told in his first two novels, completing the family histories in a way that found the characters transforming the breathtaking horrors of slavery and segregation into a redemptive spiritual force. All three novels received glowing reviews but recorded very poor sales.

In 1985, Forrest was named chairman of Northwestern’s African-American studies department. He had grown more confident than ever about his powers as a writer, and he thought he was ready to toss everything he had into one big spicy gumbo of a book, a book filled with comedy, tragedy, and chaos.

“I had been reading Ulysses quite closely, and I was influenced by jazz, of course, and the two seemed to be working together to open me up, to free me to try even more imaginative romps,” he said, describing the years dedicated to writing Divine Days. “I was on this horse, and I dared not get off.” He stayed on the horse for seven years, until the manuscript weighed in at 1,829 pages. When Marianne read it, she told her husband he should split it into three books. Forrest did not agree. He wanted this work to land with a mighty thump.

* * *

One day I showed up at Forrest’s apartment carrying a hardcover, first-edition copy of Divine Days. I’d found it at a bookstore near his home, and I wanted him to sign it. The book was rare, and it certainly had never landed with the thump Forrest had hoped for. Unable to find a major publisher willing to invest in such a monumental tome, he gave the book to Another Chicago Press, a small publisher that hoped to make a name for itself with the ambitious novel. In 1992, Another Chicago Press released only 1,500 copies—and about 75 of those were destroyed when a fire hit the basement of the publisher’s home. Forrest always mourned those lost books, even though W. W. Norton later teamed with the small publisher to release more.

“Where did you find this?” he asked me.

“Just down the block at Bookman’s Alley,” I said.

“How much did it cost?”

“Twenty bucks,” I said, smiling like a fool, happy about my bargain.

Forrest’s face dropped. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might be saddened to hear that his greatest work, a mere five years old and quite hard to find, had fallen in value by more than a third. Forrest fretted over how his work would be remembered. On the one hand, so few copies had sold that he sometimes wondered if he would be completely forgotten before long. On the other hand, the novels had been well reviewed, and when hundreds of people gathered to pay tribute to his work last year at the Art Institute of Chicago, he felt at least for the day that he had been accorded the status of an important writer.

“There’s a Napoleonic thing behind this, and you as another short man will understand this,” he told me. “I’m always getting my dukes up. Haha. That’s a good thing to have, I think, to boost you up. But you still have to have the craft as a writer, because you can go out there with your dukes up and get knocked down if you don’t.”

As Forrest became more ill, some of his friends and admirers reassured him that his stature was not in doubt. Toni Morrison, who had gone on to win the Nobel Prize for novels such as Beloved and Song of Solomon, said she would use whatever clout she had in publishing to see that Forrest received the acclaim he deserved. “This man is a giant of a writer, a giant,” Morrison said in a telephone interview. “Divine Days is an extraordinary book.” Years from now, she predicted, Forrest’s books will be included in the canon of great American fiction. “Save your notes,” she told me, because someday scholars would be researching Forrest’s life.

Morrison said Forrest had been overlooked because he refused to compromise by shortening or “dumbing down” his work. When he submitted his third book to Random House, she had to fight hard to get it published. Finally, the company offered Forrest an insultingly low advance, hoping to appease Morrison but make Forrest go away. “Anybody else would have said no,” Morrison recalled, “but he was very clear. He wanted to publish the book because he’s a writer. It could have been five cents.”

Saul Bellow, another Nobel Prize–winning writer, says two things about Leon Forrest stand out in his mind: “First, his mildness. In appearance and manner, he’s very mild. The other thing is that he’s so fierce, intellectually and emotionally.

I think this combination is irresistible.”

It was Forrest’s “bad luck,” Bellow said, that he did not write shorter or more lurid books. “I really do respect him greatly as a writer,” said Bellow, who met Forrest when the two men lived in Hyde Park. “He has a strong, original contribution to make, and that’s the important thing with writing. He goes his own way.” But even serious writers and critics have found it difficult to set aside the time required to read Divine Days, Bellow said. “It would be unfortunate if he had to wait another ten years for acknowledgment.”

As I read Divine Days, I thought I detected a clue as to why Forrest might have invited me to conduct these interviews. The most compelling relationship in the novel is the one between Joubert Jones, the book’s narrator, and Sugar-Groove, a Mississippi-born mulatto who seems to embody the bittersweet complexity of black life in America. Sugar-Groove is a mythic traveler, a living legend who generates folklore with his wild and often hilarious exploits. He’s like the blues: simultaneously full of love and anger, healing and pain, joy and heartbreak. His favorite song is “Nature Boy,” performed by Nat King Cole and written by Eden Ahbez, a long-bearded figure in a robe and sandals who appeared almost like an apparition backstage one night at a Cole concert and gave him the song. The lyrics appear over and over in the book:

There was a boy . . . a very strange, enchanted boy . . . They say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea . . . A little shy and sad of eye, but very wise was he . . . And then one day, a magic day he passed my way . . . and while we spoke of many things, fools and kings . . . This he said to me: The greatest thing you’ll ever learn . . . is just to love and be loved in return . . . The greatest thing you’ll ever learn . . . is just to love and be loved in return.

Sugar-Groove becomes a mentor to Joubert Jones, trusting him with great secrets and stories, and Joubert intends to write a play about this flawed but heroic figure. Now, to some small degree, I felt as if Forrest had cast himself in the role of Sugar-Groove and me in the part of Joubert. He had done the same thing last summer for Derek Goldman, a 27-year-old graduate student at Northwestern who worked with Forrest on an adaptation of Divine Days for the stage (his play will be performed on campus at the Barber Theater from February 20th to March 1st).

“I think Leon was authentically moved that someone was so motivated to climb this huge, mythic mountain, to take on Divine Days,” Goldman said. “We would meet for four hours, and then he’d call me that night to continue the discussion. But he never took over the process. He was always encouraging me to find my own voice. The more I took over, the happier he’d get.”

Forrest seemed to be reinventing himself through his students, repeating the story of his own life and art to people who would not only remember it but write it down for future generations. He no doubt knew that one magazine article and a two-week theatre production would reach more people than all his novels had. It’s a common theme in Forrest’s novels, and in much of African American literature: Those who die can be born again as mythological figures, their magic and majesty rejuvenated and even enlarged as their stories get passed on through the generations. In that sense, Forrest wanted what we all want: He wanted immortality.

“You know,” Marianne told me, “just the other day he was lying in bed and staring into the distance, like he was deep in thought. I wondered if he was thinking about one of our romantic times together, thinking back on our life, you know. So I asked. And he said, ‘Oh, I was just thinking about where I’ll stand someday in the literary world.’” She sighs and smiles, too familiar and too much in love to be hurt. “If you love someone, you accept it. It’s not the worst thing.”

* * *

One chilly afternoon while I was writing this story, I stopped by The New 408 Club (“The Place Where Friendly People Meet”). This was the South Side bar Forrest’s parents had once owned. In Divine Days, Forrest calls it the Night Light Lounge.

The average age in the place was comfortably past retirement. Jim Freeman, Ronald Jackson, Harry Roebuck, and the elegant Azelma Coleman all sat at the south end of the bar while the barmaid, Michelle Judkins, worked the afternoon shift. She poured Freeman’s Scotch-on-the-rocks into a tall glass and Coleman’s into a short round one. After eight years of mixing and pouring for a crowd that hadn’t changed—only diminished—she didn’t have to ask.

I had phoned Michelle to say I was coming, and when I arrived the barmaid shouted for the crowd to quiet down. “This is Jon,” she said, “and he’s writing a story about the writer whose family used to own this place. What’s his name again, Jon?”

“Leon Forrest.”

The room remained quiet.

“He was Adeline’s and Mr. Pitts’s boy,” Michelle said.

I heard a few “Oh, yeah”s.

I carried my paperback copy of Divine Days into the bar with me. I’m not sure why. Forrest told me he used to visit the bar every year or so to refresh his memory, but none of the folks at the bar had ever read the books.

“I was so glad to meet somebody I hadn’t seen in a while,” Forrest said, recalling his visits to the 408. “The pattern I used so often in Divine Days was the idea of the mysterious stranger or the idea of the myth of the return of the native. So you wouldn’t see people in the bar for maybe six months, and they’d come back with a whole world of stories to tell you. It got to be a joke: ‘Oh, I thought you were dead.’ ‘No, here he is.’” And Forrest laughed.

“You’d get to talking and find out all the stories this person had gathered in. In the bar life of this kind, there was a mix between people who worked very hard on one job, and then there were the people who were rolling stones, I guess you’d say, and as the old saying goes, they gather no moss. But that’s all right. They certainly gathered up a lot of stories, and they’d return and inform everybody where they’d been, what they’d seen. All of this goes into what I call a large reservoir for the writer, and he reaches down and picks up what he needs and then reshapes it into something that is rugged, tough, angular, disciplined, slippery, and constantly instructive.”

I suppose I’d come to the 408 seeking a reservoir of my own, something that might help me understand Forrest better. But there was not much here, I thought.

“I remember Little Leon,” said Jim Freeman, calling me over. “Light colored. Curly hair. He was very smart.”

“Pitts’s stepson,” said Harry Roebuck. “Used to be when Pitts opened this place on Sunday, 12 o’clock, you couldn’t get in here. Bartender’s name was Red. It was packed from the time they opened till the time they closed.”

“I remember one time they had a robbery,” said Coleman, dressed all in silver, loaded with silver jewelry, and crowned regally with a head of silver curls. “Lester’s up there singing. Oh, he was always singing. Pretty good, too. And he goes, ‘What’s that man doing up there at the cash register with a bag?’”

“All of ’em dead now,” interrupted Ronald Jackson, skinny as six o’clock and sitting on the next barstool. Coleman grabbed his wiry hands to regain control of her story, and they went back and forth that way awhile.

By now the patrons of the bar had taken an interest in the big book under my arm, passing it around, thumbing its pages, and joking about how thick their own books would be if they ever got around to writing them. A few of them took my pen and began scribbling notes to Forrest on the title page. “I’m still here,” wrote Michelle, who signed it “Michelle the Barmaid.”

I slid my notebook into my pocket and went to the jukebox, which still contained many of the songs from Divine Days, the same songs Little Leon heard when he worked behind the bar, pouring, mixing, shaking, and stirring the ingredients that would someday form his novels. I slid a buck in the machine and picked three songs: Billie Holiday singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”; Louis Armstrong playing “What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue?)”; and Nat King Cole doing “Nature Boy.”

The lyrics to “Nature Boy” might seem sappy and simple when you read them on the printed page, but listening to the words now at The New 408 Club, the song seemed sadder than a thousand eulogies, and strangely cryptic. The strings sang like nightingales and Cole’s piano danced delicately, like the wind skimming still water. The bar got a little quiet.

There was a boy . . . a very strange, enchanted boy . . . They say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea . . . .

Forrest had a lot in common with this strange, enchanted Nature Boy who traveled the world telling stories to strangers. No matter if people in the bar read his books. He used the characters he met in the 408 as a springboard for the imagination, tumbling and turning, lying and flying, riffing and ranting, until he’d created a universe of his own design. He called it Forest County. He looked deep into the souls of the people who lived there, and though life got complicated in his fictional world, joy almost always carried the day.

The song on the jukebox came to a painfully slow close.

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn . . .

And then a man at the bar I didn’t get to meet—a shrunken old man with his face hidden beneath a floppy tan fishing cap—sang along for the song’s last line:

. . . is just to love and be loved in return.

Forrest did in fact finish his last novel. In early October, after his weeklong stay in the hospital, doctors said they could do nothing more than make him comfortable, and they sent him home to receive hospice care. It had become almost impossible for him to keep down solid food, and he had grown so thin he seemed almost transparent. His laugh had been reduced to something less than a whisper and barely more than a smile.

Marianne called Northwestern and had them send over a laptop computer so her husband could continue tinkering with his novel while his agent pitched it to publishers. But soon even the tinkering was finished. At the end of the book, Joubert Jones does appear to die from those rifle wounds suffered in the barbershop. In his final moments, a bright light that is both beautiful and demonic flashes before him. Billie Holiday, the Catholic Mass, a parrot named Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. Constitution, and the Ink Spots singing Street of Dreams all flare in the tail of this rambling meteor:

“Why Was I Born?” encircled the quartered crescent of my lips. Where and just who is God Almighty, if He can create this spectacle? And do nothing for the starving millions but provide them with foul oxygen the breathe [sic] of life. What constituted His very Being? The backbone of His spirituality? Oh had God gone to sleep on us? Oh, if only I could purloin some of this imperfect righteousness and horrifying by wondrous Light and never never let it go . . . but it was all entangled in my mind with “Gold, silver and gold / All that you can hold / Is in the moonbeams.”

When the book was done, Forrest took Marianne’s advice and shortened the title to Meteor in the Madhouse. But now his health had begun slipping fast. Eventually, even some of his optimism wore away. For weeks, friends had been phoning and visiting and telling him how much they loved him. They were saying goodbye. Now he stopped taking the phone calls. His doctor encouraged him to find some work to do. It was the work, they said, that had kept him alive. When I called one day to say hello, Marianne suggested that I should come up and complete my series of interviews.

“I’ve got enough to write my story,” I told her. I didn’t want to bother him anymore.

“I think you should finish the interviews,” she repeated more firmly.

This time, when I visited, Forrest had grown so delicate and weak that he could no longer adjust his body in bed without the help of a nurse. Though it seemed impossible, he had lost still more weight. He kept a small black tape player on the mattress, and when I asked what it was for, he reached out with a long, skinny finger and gently pushed the “play” button. Mahalia Jackson, with a full choir, sang “We Shall Overcome.”

I had almost finished writing my story, and we both knew Forrest might not live to see it published. Though a journalist is taught never to show his story to his subject before it appears in print, I chose, as a friend, to set that rule aside. Several thoughts ran through my mind as I nervously handed him my typed pages: Would he be depressed by the story? Disappointed in my writing? Would he feel he had wasted his time?

He turned off his tape player, thumbed through the pages to assess the length of the piece, then asked me to get him a pencil. He began leafing through my manuscript, scratching out one or two sentences, marking the transitions he thought worked well. “That’s a nice sentence,” he whispered at one point. Some of his scribbled suggestions were small: I had written that “few people” had ever read Divine Days, and he changed it to “not many.” He circled the entire paragraph in which I had described his office and penciled in the word “style?” That meant he thought I was capable of better writing.

Finally, he put the piece down, pushed a button on his bed to raise the upper half of his body, and looked at me. “I like this a lot,” he said. His voice surprised me with its strength. “It’s your interpretation of my life and me, and as it stands it’s very engrossing. But I think you can get the reader more involved. The material is all here, but I think you can take charge of it more.” He went on to say that I should feel free to ignore his remarks entirely and that the story was fine as it stood. If I decided to make any changes, he didn’t want to see them. He said he trusted me.

While Forrest edited, I had sat down on the bed next to him and completed my own odyssey. At last I had reached the end of Divine Days, rounding page 1,100 and heading for home. I would finish the book while Forrest read my own minor effort. The whole scene seemed too good to be true, as if created for some overly warm piece of fiction. Still, we had clearly come to some sort of end, and I was struggling not to cry.

In the final pages of Divine Days, Joubert Jones is learning about the last days of his hero, Sugar-Groove, who has climbed a mountain in Africa seeking the meaning of his bittersweet life. But instead of finding a divine spirit atop the mountain, Sugar-Groove encounters the demonic force of W. A. D. Ford, a Forest County con man who claims to be the son of God. The two fall into an epic battle.

Who lives and who dies is not important. What counts is that Sugar-Groove is willing to wrestle with the demon, striving to see even after his eyes have been torn from his head. Joubert is so inspired by Sugar-Groove’s bravery that he begins to understand the meaning of his own life, and he knows that he must rage with all his might to write plays that reveal all that is wicked and wonderful about the human predicament.

I asked Forrest if he would offer the same life-affirming message if he were writing the book today.

“Oh, probably,” he said, almost laughing.

Less than two weeks later, on November 6th, Leon Forrest died at Evanston Hospital. The funeral came on a cloudy day of bitter cold. To me, it felt strangely like a graduation.

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