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Leon Forrest: Divine Days

The big novel in the United States has generally been the preserve of the white male – McElroy, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace and Co. – so it is interesting to have an African-American man produce a 1135 page magnum opus. Like other big books, it is often hard work but also has many rewards. It has, of course, been compared to Ulysses, War and Peace, The Invisible Man, Balzac, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Thomas Mann, Faulkner and pretty anyone else you can think of. It is, fortunately, very much in its own style, even if it does pay homage to some of those mentioned above. As in his earlier books, he resorts very strongly to the oral tradition and black history is key to the book.

The story is about Jourbet Antoine Jones who has a variety of nicknames such as Baby Bear and Honey Bear. As the opening sentence tells us, he has just returned home (to Chicago) from a two year stint in the army. Jourbet was raised by his aunt Eloise, after his mother was killed in a plane crash. When his aunt marries his father, she becomes his aunt and his stepmother. When his father dies in a car crash a week before his twelfth birthday, Aunt Eloise marries a man twenty-five years older than her. Aunt Eloise is an enterprising woman, working as a journalist but also running a liquor store and a bar. Jourbet wants to be a playwright and has written a play (called Divine Days) which he sent to seven theatrical companies while serving in the army in Germany but has not heard back from them. Strangely, the manuscript of the play has disappeared (though it turns up later). Till he is recognised as a playwright, he works as a barman and manager of Aunt Eloise’s bar, which gives Forrest ample opportunity to parade a whole host of colourful characters before us. The whole story is set during one week in February 1966 but, of course, goes back in time quite considerably.

Just before returning home, Aunt Eloise had told him that Sugar-Grove had died. Sugar-Grove is perhaps the most colourful of the characters, that mythic soul of Forest County, as Jourbet describes him. A good part of the book is about Jourbet’s attempt to remember Sugar-Grove, by recalling his own memories but also by talking to everyone and anyone who knew him and in doing so explores his own antecedents as well as Sugar-Grove’s. But he is also interested in the disappearance of W A D Ford, the charismatic preacher and subject of Jourbet’s play as well as the suicide of De Loretto Holloday, the woman artist. In doing so, he also explores black culture, both that in Chicago (called Forest County here) but also that of their ancestors in the South. Jourbet writes a play about Sugar-Grove and the fictionalised Sugar-Grove becomes a legendary folk hero who, as in There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, ends up as an almost Christ-like figure.

Forrest knows how to use the traditional black story-telling to great ability. The local barber, Oscar Williemain, for example, is a great story-teller and his barbershop the centre of the community. But we see this faculty in other characters, including W A D Ford and Sugar-Grove as well, of course, in Forrest’s own ability. Indeed, it is his great ability to have so many voices and so many different ones. Unlike in other multi-cast novels, Forrest is able to make each voice distinctive, from the Shakespeare-quoting barber to black street talk.

Amazingly, this novel never garnered the praise it deserved. It was first published by a relatively obscure Chicago publisher, before being picked up by a major New York publisher but, despite glowing reviews, particularly in the black community, it never took off, probably because of its size. It is now sadly out of print. This is a pity as it certainly stands comparison with the big books written by the white males. It is witty, tells a great story, links the story of the main characters to the whole range of African-American history, right up to the time of the story (i.e. 1966), has a multitude of very colourful voices and characters and never flags for a minute. It deserves to be rediscovered.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Another Chicago Press