Leon Forrest and The Baffler Fire



399 E 53rd St, Chicago, IL 60615

Neighborhood: All Over, Letter From Abroad

In 1992, I attended a reading in celebration of the publication by Leon Forrest of his fifth novel, the 1,135-page “Divine Days,” at the long since closed Brentano’s on 53rd Street in Hyde Park, Chicago. I took along my former girlfriend, a quiet, awkward jazz DJ with whom I’d had trouble separating.

The crowd that night was made up of African Americans of that generation which recalls a segregated nation all too vividly, and despises hip-hop. Forrest, a former newspaper editor who at the time chaired the African American Studies department at Northwestern University, was modest and pleasant in the face of his cinderblock-sized novel, which critic John Cawelti had termed “the Ulysses of the South Side,” covering as it does a week in the life of a would-be playwright in 1966, and embracing a dizzying swath of urban black life. Forrest resembled not some Black Action variant on the drunken, misanthropic, one-eyed Joyce of literary legend, but instead a more jocular representative of those grouchy, stout, cigar-wielding men who drove the buses and went down into steam-filled tunnels and kept the city running.

I didn’t want to spend $30 on Forrest’s big book, for it was very intimidating. I sprung instead for a paperback reissue of a previous novel, “Two Wings To Veil My Face.” Grinning, Forrest inscribed it to me: “Hope you find delight in these WINGS!”

Forrest may not have had Joyce’s physical traits, but clearly he was a man to walk beneath the Joycean mantle: he possessed the necessary combination of stamina and earthy humor, as demonstrated by even a cursory examination of “Divine Days‚” extended prose riffs. And, like the real Joyce, dramatic disaster shadowed him. Shortly after the reading, a fire destroyed the warehouse of Another Chicago Press which contained most copies of Divine Days (a book that, at 1,135 pages, was expensive for a rather small, ill-distributed press to print.)

In 1996, I was a student at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where my peers’ tastes ran to Kurt Vonnegut, and my half-hearted, half-vulgarian efforts to introduce writings of the fringe were met with a sustained universal shudder. In the Barnes & Noble-controlled student bookstore, I found a single shelfworn but unharmed copy of Divine Days, in the edition fire supposedly consumed. How did it get there? For the marked-down price of seven dollars, this one was mine. The presence of Forrest was a boost amidst the dismal requirements of junior academe.

Two years later, I was tending bar in a Chicago hotel. For no good reason, a large and shabby discount bookstore had opened in the trendy Gold Coast neighborhood. It was there I found several of the Norton re-issue of Divine Days, sturdy and, alas, remaindered. I bought two of the heavy volumes. I wish I’d bought more, to give away to writer friends, who need to be reminded of what we may be capable off.

Leon Forrest died in 1997 without publishing another novel in his lifetime. Again, like Joyce, Forrest may have foresaw, but did not get to enjoy, the proper rewards of true literary accomplishment, for in years to come Divine Days will be considered ahead of most of the recent, MS Word-midwifed “big novels,” barring the fatal fires of habitual neglect, of course.

Why do they do it, why do writers stick to their insane and impractical projects, the coal-mined depths of their visions? The world is their fire, consuming fine writing and poor, the unworkable stabs of students and the clock-like work of masters alike.

Recently in Chicago, we’ve witnessed the literary community rally admirably following a disastrous fire at the cultural collective containing the office of The Baffler Magazine. Computers, hard drives, back issues, even the collection of rare advertising texts and American Mercurys: wet pulp and ashes now. What was NOT consumed, however, was the long-awaited Issue #14, which had been safely delivered to an overbooked print-shop two weeks earlier, and which will soon be in subscribers’ hands, who should turn first to the excerpt from Meteor in the Madhouse, the forthcoming final book by…. Leon Forrest.

This time, something stepped in on the side of the words. Don’t call it a ghost: writers like Leon Forrest understand that they need no ghost to live forever, after death, on the carefully wrought page.

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