Leon ForrestThe 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.”
* * *
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.
* * *
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?”
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.