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Even before the illness, Forrest was not the sort who squandered his time. Sometimes, when he drove through Evanston, he saw mothers and fathers playing with their children on well-groomed lawns in front of beautiful houses that obviously required tending, and he wondered: How do they ever get any writing done? He and his wife, Marianne, never had children. It’s not that they didn’t want to, but that none ever came. They decided they would be happy either way. To hear Forrest tell it, nothing interesting ever happened to him. If it hadn’t been for a 10,000-volt imagination, he figured he would never have had anything to write.
“I’ve spent all this time, sometimes to my chagrin now, 10 or 12 hours a day, writing,” he said. “When I wasn’t writing, I was reading, or listening to stories, or going places where good stories were told. That’s been my great romp through life.”
He and Marianne lived in a sparsely furnished eighth-floor apartment near downtown Evanston. Forrest’s desk faced south. He worked surrounded by a great cast of inspirational figures. He had a wall-to-wall bookcase crammed with Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, Gabriel García Márquez, James Joyce, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, and Jean Toomer, among many others. From atop the bookcase, framed photographs of his parents seemed to watch over the writer as he worked. In the corner of the room, next to an old sofa, he had Louis Armstrong on the turntable and Pops Staples, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles waiting nearby to take a spin. He wrote on an antiquated word processor—an electric typewriter plugged into a monitor—and he sat surrounded by a deep mess of books and papers. Among the piles were several binders, each one thick as a Sunday newspaper, and each stuffed with characters, dialogues, and random seeds of thoughts that had not yet taken root in one of his books.
“These are my dry bones,” he said. “What I’ll do oftentimes is write the little scenes that come to me and put them in a book binder like this.” If Forrest were a musician, these pages would be his practice sessions, his woodshed, the place he went to polish his craft and push his own limitations. In Forrest’s fiction, the same characters pop up in one novel after another, much as they do in Faulkner, and some of Forrest’s favorite characters show up among his dry bones, too. In one binder, Billie Holiday enjoys a long conversation with one of the characters from Divine Days. In another, Forrest explores the meaning of the myth of Icarus, then riffs on the relationships found in the myth.
He loved to write about people who endured their tragedies and went on to achieve brilliance. If the brilliance happened to be complicated and messy, he liked it even more. That’s why he adored Billie Holiday: because this motherless child with the mousy voice and paltry range produced some of the most powerful and lasting music ever made. To Forrest, she symbolized the African American journey out of slavery, the migration from South to North, and the search for meaning in the free, postslavery world. The theme of personal reinvention runs through Forrest’s work, which might explain why characters endure mountainous struggles yet come back in book after book. And very few of them ever die.
“The people who fail in life are those who can’t reinvent,” Forrest said. “This is something we learn from jazz musicians, who are always reinventing the musical form. I look for ways that the chaos of American values can be penetrated. Values which are rather shabby can be transcended by a certain cunning and bravery, a certain optimism. If you lose your optimism, then you’re in serious trouble.”
One more book. That’s how Forrest would reinvent himself this time. That’s how he would maintain his optimism. He fought—not to defeat the cancer, because he knew that was a contest he could not win. He fought to finish the book.
* * *
For more than a month I carried Divine Days with me wherever I went, reading it on buses, at lunch counters, and between phone calls at work. Once a week I made the trip to Evanston to interview Forrest, and I took the book with me to read on the el. During our first two interviews, we sat in the living room and talked for hours about baseball, basketball, music, and religion (since the cancer hit, Forrest had renewed his faith in the Catholic Church and found great solace in the ritual of the Eucharist). He always took the time to ask what was happening in my life, and he listened carefully. But most of our discussions centered on writing. He did most of the talking and I took detailed notes, as if I were back in class again. He inspired me to think and wonder and challenge myself, just as he had done before in the prime of his life.
By the third week, our visits began growing shorter, and they usually ended with Forrest saying he was too tired to go on. I would phone him between meetings to talk about certain passages in Divine Days, and he would tell me about his novel in progress. He was very close to being finished, he said, but he still needed to write transitions between some sections, and he wanted to make sure that certain themes and threads traveled clearly through the five novellas. At one point, he called to say Marianne had suggested shortening the title of the book to Meteor in the Madhouse, and he wanted to know what I thought.
Forrest said many times that he would not allow his illness to affect his work, but in subtle ways he couldn’t help it. When he found himself rambling—going too deeply into a dialogue or adding a nonessential anecdote—he felt, for perhaps the first time, a nagging urge to get to the point. (Or, as he put it in his last book: “If I commenced a series of recollections over the honored, now lost, Past, I’d never get out of here.”) He expected to bring the book in at about 375 pages. “I’ve been forced to back off certain orchestral additions,” he said. “I’m sure the reader will appreciate this. Hahaha.”
But in addition to the relative economy of language, there was one more sign that Forrest’s cancer had spread to his fiction: The fifth novella contained a chilling death scene told in the third person. Forrest slipped me a copy one day when I arrived at his apartment only to learn that our interview had to be canceled. His condition had deteriorated overnight, and Marianne was taking him to the hospital. It was the first time in weeks that I’d seen Forrest dressed, and the sight was a shock: His droopy clothing would have had more shape on hangers, and he looked too weak even to climb a curb. Forrest asked Marianne to wait while I went down the block to copy these pages from the novella.
In Divine Days, a character named Joubert Jones roams the South Side of Chicago (thinly disguised in the book as Forest County) and keeps an eight-day journal that captures the mythic size and scope of African American culture in the 1960s. The characters, jokes, and music; the sermons, the politics, and the barbershop monologues; the sex, food, love, and pain are all arrayed in delightful color. Though the author mildly denied it, Joubert closely resembles a young Leon Forrest, a South Side native with roots in Louisiana and Mississippi who aspires to become a professional writer.
In the novella Forrest gave me on his way to the hospital, Joubert appears again, reinvented. By this time he has become a successful playwright and a professor at a distinguished American university. In the early dusk of a November day, he drops by Williemain’s barbershop—frequently the setting for parts of Divine Days—to retrieve a pair of lost glasses. A white Ford Bronco pauses in front of the shop and a burst of rifle fire fills the air. The framed photos of black athletes and entertainers crash to the floor. Joubert is hit twice, sparking one of Forrest’s classically hallucinogenic ramblings on life, death, race, and American history. This is but a very small part of Joubert’s death scene:
Then I saw a burnished bronze, miniature coffin, being elevated on to a conveyer belt—and now running round and round a track (“Run to Heaven and run right back”). Until just as I thought my loping head would drop off of my neck, I realized how the thimble-sized fustic colored coffin was hooked on to my Choo-Choo train that daddy had set up for me on the basement floor, decades back in the quarries of memory. The long runaway train was smoking at break-neck swiftness, in the incandescence of its Terribleness. The red, white and blue window curtains were streaked with soot and Black tears. And now as I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my Soul to keep if I die . . . I dreamed the question: was the soul of Mister Lincoln, or the fabled runaway Mister Frederick Douglass, locked away in a weary land inside. Exactly who was the conductor, or the engineer heading up this service to nowhere and yet a bridge to Heaven? Was this train bound for Glory?
* * *
The cold was severe that day in 1970, and the snow was falling in such heavy blankets that Marianne Duncan wasn’t sure the sun would ever come out again. She made her way to the bus stop at 49th Street and Dorchester to go to work. As she reached the corner, a short man looked her in the eye, bent himself at the waist, and tipped his hat.
“How silly,” Marianne thought. “He looked very married. You know, he was not a young man, and he looked like he was on his way to the bakery to get bread for his family. Besides, who tips their hat anymore? This was 1970!”
Marianne was divorced. She had two college-age children. She was still quite young, though, and very beautiful. She mentioned this hat-tipping fellow to a friend at the welfare office where she worked, and it just so happened her friend knew the man. “That’s Leon Forrest. He lives next door to me, and he’s perfectly harmless. He’s not married, but he types all night,” the friend said, providing the perfect preview of the man.
Leon was an only child, born to a couple of teenage parents in 1937 at Cook County Hospital. His father, Leon Sr., was a mulatto from Mississippi who never knew the white man who fathered him. He wrote songs and played them on the guitar, but only friends and family ever heard him. While he may have fantasized about a career in music, he supported his family by working as a bartender on the Santa Fe Railroad. He married a neighborhood girl, Adeline Green, who came from a family of New Orleanians that reveled in storytelling. Though her formal schooling stopped in her second year of high school, Adeline occasionally wrote short stories and mailed them to magazines. None were published. She died in 1964, at the age of 45, from intestinal cancer.
As a young man at Hyde Park High School, Little Leon gained a reputation for serious scholarship, a smooth way with women, and a deadly two-handed outside shot on the basketball court. Friends remember parties where he served as the unofficial entertainment, agreeing to read Dylan Thomas’s poetry or simultaneously debate three or four friends on three or four different topics. “He always seemed so understated and mild-mannered, but he would stand up against anyone,” recalls Dr. James McClure, a friend since high school. “He was very active in the civil rights movement as a young man.”
After high school, Forrest attended Chicago’s Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy King College). His parents divorced and his mother married an accountant named William Harrison Pitts. Forrest went to work part-time at 408 Liquors, a family-owned bar and package liquor store at the corner of 79th Street and South Park Boulevard (now called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive). There were more odd jobs, a stint in the army, and lots more college before Marianne came into the picture, but through it all, Forrest’s typewriter clacked away. Even on the first date, Marianne could see that the man lived for the written word. After attending an Odetta concert, they stayed up until three in the morning arguing over who was the greater writer, Faulkner or Hemingway. On another early date, Leon took Marianne back to his apartment to see the multiple stacks of papers he confidently referred to as his novel. He asked if she would like to read it, but she said no. She was afraid of what might happen to their relationship if she didn’t like it. “So I didn’t read it until after we were married,” she says.
Marianne didn’t care if her husband could write. Forrest was the happiest person she’d ever met. His light brown eyes seemed to glimmer, his voice sang with sex appeal, and his mind burst with a staggering imaginative force. Forrest was equally impressed with Marianne. “She was a knockout,” he recalled. “She had all the sweet pleasantness of a Southern lady—and she was interested in literature.” One snowy night, when they were supposed to go see Tosca at the Civic Opera House, the car wouldn’t start. Forrest went out and got a bottle of brandy and a book containing Tosca’s English text, and they stayed up late reading the parts aloud.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he wrote feature stories for The Woodlawn Booster and the Englewood Observer, then became the editor of Muhammad Speaks (he was never a Muslim, however). While working for Muhammad Speaks, he completed his first novel and sent it to Random House, where it was discovered by a new editor named Toni Morrison. She suggested the title: There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden. Forrest later gave a copy of the manuscript to Ralph Ellison, who agreed to write an introduction to the book. “How furiously eloquent is this man’s . . . prose,” Ellison wrote, “how zestful his jazz-like invention, his parody, his reference to the classics and commonplaces of literature, folklore, tall-tale and slum-street jive!” Even now, A Tree remains Forrest’s densest and most difficult novel, a complicated series of monologues occurring at different layers of the narrator’s consciousness as he struggles through dreams and visions to understand his mother’s death.
* * *