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‘A Long-Tongue Saga’ | Christopher Byrd

‘A Long-Tongue Saga’ | Christopher Byrd
‘A Long-Tongue Saga’ | Christopher Byrd

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For the experimental novelist Leon Forrest, the sermon was a major source of inspiration: a flexible form, especially as refined in the African American tradition, that lends itself to both lofty rhetoric and common speech, mingling history, personal observation, moral assertion, and the interpretation of myth—to say nothing of the joy of allusion. In “In the Light of Likeness—Transformed,” an autobiographical essay collected in The Furious Voice for Freedom (1994), he wrote of discovering “a kind of cosmic totality within the monologue of the Negro preacher, which might, in turn, lead to a cosmic consciousness of the race.”

The characters in Forrest’s novels are great talkers—ramblers who become enraptured with their “sagas,” a word that becomes almost a refrain in his hefty fourth novel, Divine Days (1992). Although Forrest was praised by Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Stanley Crouch, and Toni Morrison (who edited his first three novels for Random House), his work remains little known. Divine Days was first published by Another Chicago Press, but a sizable portion of its initial print run was destroyed in a warehouse fire; it was released again by Norton in 1993, and a new corrected edition now incorporates hundreds of changes that Forrest made for the paperback but that were not included because they reached Norton after printing was underway.

Divine Days takes place over one week, February 16–23, 1966. Its narrator is Joubert Antoine Jones, twenty-eight years old, a thirsty intellectual who has dropped out of college seven times. When we meet him, he’s fresh out of the army and tending his aunt’s bar, Eloise’s Night Light Lounge. A fair amount of Jones’s odyssey consists of managing the bar’s staff and customers, going on assignments for a local newspaper, catching up with acquaintances, fixating on an attractive painter, writing up his impressions of the central figures in his life, and being inducted into a private social club. He is kept busy listening to people ruminate, tell tall tales, fly off the handle, obfuscate, clarify, unburden themselves, and project.

Early in the book Jones mentions that he hears voices—think magical realism rather than schizophrenia. Sometimes the various personae clamoring in his head get the best of him: in one memorable scene, he goes to a church and is physically taken over by Connie Dixon Rivers, a tap dancer, leading him to upstage a preacher with his happy feet, which wins him the affection of seven churchgoing sisters.

Jones’s overriding ambition is to become a playwright, so he listens to how people interleave their conversations with other voices—those they know and those they’ve heard about. “I was as thirsty for stories as those ghosts Ulysses meets are famished for the blood in the trenches, in order to achieve the power of speech,” he says. “How else to stock my soul upon the lies and stories out of the mouths of others in order to build up a stockpile of voices—beside the ones I continually heard…?” He sees himself as Forrest did, as the product of both oral and literary traditions: the fruit of surrounding voices as well as ambitious reading habits. Jones’s thoughts are filled with the works of James Joyce, Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, W.E.B. Du Bois, Homer, Archibald MacLeish, William Shakespeare, and other respectable company. When he isn’t stressing over how to make his literary mark, or wondering how to escape his aunt’s influence, he’s observing what other people venerate: status, hipness, the law, romance, dope, hazy mysticism, the past, appearances, transgressions, etc.

As for Jones, his faith in the power of storytelling is infinite. That’s one of the reasons he admires his recently deceased friend Sugar-Groove. In the seventh chapter of a book that has a field day with the number seven, Jones commits to paper his memories of Sugar-Groove, who once told him:

I tell sagas about friends, some acquaintances I’ve known. Sagas I’ve known, or gathered in. Hoping frankly against hope, Joubert, these stories will add up to a long-tongue saga: tell a tale of what life means.

Born in Chicago in 1937, Leon Forrest was the only child of Adeline Green Forrest and Leon Forrest Sr., who were themselves only children. (His parents went to high school with Nat King Cole, who, Forrest reports, “was kind of sweet on my mother, or so I was told.”) His father, who grew up in Mississippi, never knew his own white father, Archie Forrest, and that absence marked him. A recurring theme throughout Forrest’s novels is the frustrated search for wholeness—his books are full of orphans, the violated, the jilted, and the bereaved. In Divine Days a “mulatto” child with dark skin and gray eyes navigates a complicated relationship with his white father, a former slave owner, who provides him with financial support but never acknowledges him as his son.

That child grows into a man who stumbles upon an unspeakable familial crime and then, at his father’s urging, heads north to escape being lynched. His flight takes him from Mississippi to Forest County, a version of Chicago’s South Side—Forrest’s Yoknapatawpha. He sheds his name and acquires many others, though his friends tend to call him Sugar-Groove. For the people who know him, he is a shape-shifter: a survivor of the South, a ladies’ man, a luftmensch, a true soul brother, a drifter, and a negligent father.

The novel begins with news of his death, though Jones is unsure whether to believe it. Nonetheless, it stirs up memories and ambitions, and he hopes to transform Sugar-Groove’s story into a play. For Jones, Sugar-Groove is the exemplar of footloose cool:

The phrase “Sugar-Groove’s been here and gone” implied the leave-taking from the set, the stroll, the scene, in some bodily manifestation or other of this man of India-ink complexion and majestic, magnetic, luminous, but also pure grey eyes (indeed a sub-dubbing of Sugar-Eyes, flung from the imagination of some unnamed adoring Delta darling after setting her eyes upon those of Sugar-Groove’s once too often). Yes, and long-gone but not long for this world, no, not on your life—and yet he not only survived, Sugar-Spine seemed to stylize survival into a stunning, glistening silver wheel, turned, transformed suddenly into gold, as it approached the sun.

Jones is also preoccupied with another local legend: W.A.D. Ford, a scurrilous preacher whose name alludes to W.D. Fard, the enigmatic founder of the Nation of Islam. He is the mythic counterforce to Sugar-Groove, a fellow trickster-hustler who knows how to turn situations to his advantage. Sugar-Groove hustles to keep himself free from dependence on anyone or anything, while Ford exults in his dominion over others. The street preacher draws much of his flock from the wretched of the city, and uplifts and abuses them with abandon; he seduces his female followers and conducts bizarre disciplinary rituals—yet also fosters dignity in otherwise abject individuals.

Forrest knew Elijah Muhammad, the longtime leader of the Nation, and worked as a reporter and then as an editor at Muhammad Speaks, the Nation’s newspaper, from 1969 to 1973. During most of those years there weren’t any Black Muslims on the editorial staff—the paper focused on racial injustice in the US and movements for decolonization abroad. In an interview collected in Conversations with Leon Forrest (2007), he discussed the Ford/Fard resemblance:

There’s the actual closeness in both stories, both the story that we know of Fard and my Ford, to manipulation and mystery—the intrigue and perhaps even a sense of the closeness that so many religious figures have to the magician and to the trickster…. But that’s why, of course, the Muslims always play around with the idea that Fard was really God incarnate. So then I take Ford (and the tradition) a step further and have him a hermaphrodite who keeps coming back again and again.

Though it doesn’t happen in the book, Ford says he takes on a female form now and then; Jones calls the preacher a “serial hermaphrodite.” Ford also claims descent from a god who impregnated a woman on a mountain after he “cleaned her up.” (Elijah Muhammad told his devotees a similar story about Fard’s birth.) Like Sugar-Groove, Ford is a symbol of change, reinvention, and moxie. While Ford is the villain of the book, Jones’s reflection about Sugar-Groove near the end is broad enough to accommodate both adventurers:

The Negro American’s will to transform, reinvent and stylize until Hell freezes over…. Reinvention was what King and his Spirit of Freedom Movement followers had attempted to do with Christianity, which we got from the white man, and remade into something else that might even renew them.

Jones tells us that he spent seven weeks “off and on” with Ford, who hoped to enlist him as an editor for a magazine. At the time, Ford gathered his flock in a storefront church called DIVINE DAYS, the future location of Eloise’s Night Light Lounge. Jones recorded his words and transformed them into a play. The Ford of Jones’s recollection is candid about wanting to colonize the minds of his congregation:

“The constant problem for every great leader, my young friend, is to keep his flock convinced through cycles of new horror and ecstasy that they are part of a new covenant with God. But you spin this new covenant out of some old myths…. The people (who are always wolves in lambs’ clothing) come to believe that it is you who’ve righteously come to actually save those old, so-called truths, when really you are spinning out a new fantasy, in accordance with your own high sense of drama, your interpretation. So you’ve spun them into a faith based in the dire need to sacrifice more and more, until any fragment of a gift you give the faithful makes them feel joyous—even when you abuse them. Abuse is very important, for it is linked to the sense of sacrifice, and their need for sacrifice.”

Jones was at DIVINE DAYS when Ford declared his insolvency before his congregation; an hour later Ford mysteriously vanished with all his assorted props, including “the improvised altar of solid stone, shaped in the form of a human heart, which weighed a ton and was purloined from a New Orleans whorehouse.”

The sacred and the absurd are always in close proximity in Forrest’s work. But compared with his earlier Forest County Trilogy—There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden (1973), The Bloodworth Orphans (1977), and Two Wings to Veil My Face (1983), all of which focus on the legacy of slavery—Divine Days is far more comic. He also makes Jones its first-person narrator, rather than mainly relying on the third-person perspective, as he had in the previous novels, a choice that appears to have been liberating. The last public talk that Forrest gave, in February 1997, less than a year before his death, was organized at Vassar by my friend Milton Welch. Forrest told him that for years he’d avoided committing fully to the first person because he didn’t want to sound like he was imitating Ralph Ellison. But when he attempted a new voice in what would become his most important novel, his work became more expansive.

In Divine Days, otherwise unremarkable individuals are capable of the most fantastic feats. There is a marvelous scene in which a “very ordinary-looking man” named Ratcliffe Shackleford walks into Eloise’s Night Light Lounge and draws all attention to himself:

Here’s how it all happened. Shackleford came in and ordered a half-pint bottle of Chivas Regal, with a tall glass of water off to the side. I served him and stood by to watch his monthly feat…. Apparently Calvin Thomas had never observed Shackleford’s exercise in mayhem, so he was especially attentive as the daredevil spectacular evolved. But first Shackleford had to remove his teeth, uppers and lowers, which he did, placing them upon a bar napkin. The sight of Ratcliffe’s false teeth dripping with spittle upon the bar napkin sent Calvin’s jaw to trembling with the cigar at his lips.

Now Ratcliffe Shackleford uncapped the famous scotch…and proceeded to take down the Chivas in one long, slow-motion, gurgling gulp from that bottle in his right hand, while his left hand reached out in a dramatic gesture and seemed to automatically flex in and out in a pumping motion, imitating the contractions of his heart…. (I could not help but think of the gestures of that famous singer, Roy Hamilton, as he reached for a wondrous note and we the audience prayed for him to pull off what we could only dream of accomplishing.)

Forrest originally thought of titling his novel The Memoirs of Joubert Jones. The more prosaic title suggests a reconstruction, but this language-drunk epic revels in artifice, on occasion to the point of overwritten dialogue. Here, for instance, is one of Jones’s acquaintances, Milton “Beefeater” Raines—a former local basketball star—describing how as a baby he was left in a basket and found on the street by two vagrants who were squatting in an abandoned newspaper shack:

“Clara, a homely bony-butt skeleton of a deep-dark brown-skinned woman, all arms and motion, slants and elbows,…finding on her left the basket with the infant in it, near the fire enveloped in a peaceful, yet lip-trembling sleep, as if some strange angels had knitted across his eyes a trouble-hushing thread mask of brief rest before the anguish and the mayhem of his condition was revealed—before his very eyes—and before this strangulated flop house, this shack full of old discarded rancid newspapers and despairing fools, soon to be momentarily civilized by his presence; his lips full of motion and shuddering in the inhospitable freeze despite the fire.”

The first time I read this section, I wrote “This just doesn’t sound right” in the margins. A “strangulated flop house,” really? Jones loses patience, too—at one point he says, “You see you’ve got me talking in circles like…In your voice.”

Forrest is like an impish host who’s content to leave you cornered by a half-crazed windbag before swooping in after he’s split to discuss what you heard. In another interview in Conversations with Leon Forrest, Keith Byerman, an English professor at Indiana State University, asked him:

While the characters are very different, and their stories are very different, their voices seem to have a lot in common; that is, there seems to be this piling on of language…. Is there some sense in which they’re all simply your voice?

Forrest rejected this characterization, but it strikes me that he was protesting too much.

When I read this chapter a second time, I noted this early description of Beefeater: “Typical Beefeater Raines talking ahead of himself, in back of himself, and around himself.” The same could be said of the novel’s dialogue. Forrest plays with language like a basketball, sending it up and down, back and forth, juking with it before going to the hole. Later in the book, Jones considers his uncle’s verbal style in a passage that could be read as echoing Forrest’s avant-garde approach:

In keeping with many men who work at jobs far beneath their expectations, but who possess a passion, even a palate for “phrase-minting,” Uncle Ledbetter often used language beyond words at home, as something of a compensation for the limits on the language imposed by the very nature of his occupation in the work-a-day world.

In both his fiction and his nonfiction, Forrest celebrates the intelligence and savoir faire of working-class aristocrats.

With its length of 1,140 pages, Divine Days has the space to elicit from the reader every emotion from awe to exasperation. The more time I spent with it, the more I was riveted by its accomplishments and the less I was irritated by its longueurs. Near the end of the book, Jones says that he doesn’t want to be an elitist writer—which is laughable given his dense web of literary references.

Although the dialogue can be overwrought, Forrest’s character descriptions are consistently arresting:

Rev. Clay J. Lightfoot was something to behold with the diamond rings on his fingers, his floweriness of contrived, sterling and preening phrases (vaulting over his actual modesty of his own intellectual angularity of ideas, his only touchstone to modesty); his baby-blue silk shirt, with laced french cuffs and rhinestone cuff links; his dark-blue, three-piece suit (hand-stitched in London, his advance copy on the back of the church program duly noted)…. The Rev. Clay J. Lightfoot made a most powerful imprint upon the church sisters.

Jones, who describes himself as a “halo-less Christian,” spies the earthly seam in the spiritual garb. Although he tells himself, late in the story, that in order to make it as a playwright “I’d surely have to become more acute about the vicissitudes of human clay,” everything about him suggests that he already has.

Divine Days is a book in which people relish turning over the details of stories they share, looking for new permutations of feeling and insight. (Sugar-Groove’s favorite song, Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy,” is given an ongoing Talmudic parsing.) Remembering the words of a barber and Shakespeare obsessive, Jones thinks to himself, “What had Galloway Wheeler so often said: ‘The power of interpretation is similar to the power of redemption, as we are delivered to the other side of human experience.’”

When Jones finally discovers what happened to Sugar-Groove, another configuration of human complexity is disclosed to him. In the book’s soaring climactic dialogue, Jones visits a nursing home to learn the story from Warren Wilkerson—another trickster—who, though easily capable of passing, has chosen to live as a black man. (In his time as an active journalist, Wilkerson infiltrated white supremacist organizations to steal their secrets.)

In his final days Sugar-Groove tried to divest himself of his many identities and retreated to a “mountain slab” to seek out the source of all things—not necessarily God but, as Wilkerson tells Jones, “the source of Light-Divine-creation.” The spiritual ecstasy Sugar-Groove discovered on the mountain was interrupted by a gun-toting Ford bent on paying him back for a run-in they’d had more than five decades before in Mississippi. Between the two of them, Jones and Wilkerson consider what fundamental truths of existence Sugar-Groove discovered in his confrontation with Ford. They’re aided in their inquiry by separate accounts written by the two men.

During his pilgrimage up the mountain, Sugar-Groove discarded most of his clothes and paraphernalia, but kept his rifle. In his diary, he recorded the beginning of Ford’s assault:

…And suddenly I found that I had to remake a way out of no way for violence within my spirit, in order to survive to know my place in the Universe, ultimately. Righteous indignation is one thing; but hell, I had to save my black ass—or get blown away into an eternity, by a demon, too, before I came to know where I belonged. I was still—digging. I had been poised at the precipice…Stopped at the Crossroads…ready for the leap of faith into tomorrow.

There is no unmodulated bliss or timeless purity, nor a singular identity that one can hold on to for spiritual fulfillment. Trouble is always waiting in the wings. Jones and Wilkerson reflect on the idea that mankind’s capacity for violence is necessary for our evolutionary fitness, “the magnificent lesson of the Evil One in action, who never will leave us alone in peace.”

Divine Days is a hymn to the textures of an African American experience that rejects neat platitudes. In another of my favorite parts, Jones’s aunt deconstructs the spurious logic that gave rise to the concept of blackness and at the same time drove black people to survive, and occasionally thrive:

“Joubert, the Africans who were betrayed by their various chiefs and sold into the enslaving hands of whites were themselves stripped from various tribes and stocks, each with greatly divergent cultures; all hurled into the tar black pit-holds of the ships: Gaboons, Pawpaws, Nagoes, Whydahs, Eboes, Angolas, Congoes, Foulahs, Mandingoes, Coromantees…. Because there aren’t really any races, when all is said…. The experience of these peoples from Africa was the white plague of this ever-spreading disease called enslavement, coupled with the massive destruction of families…. They had to quickly readjust to the constant pattern of overwhelming upheaval in the living present, or die out. Swiftly adjust to the onslaught against everything they had known, knew, loved, believed—or perish.”

Forrest often said that he believed life is predicated on chaos, and that people who can’t adjust to that condition are lost. The point is to use whatever wit or talent one has at one’s disposal to gain an angle on life—“to stylize survival,” as Jones said of Sugar-Groove, or, as Sugar-Groove himself said, to make “a way out of no way.”

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