Forrest's most recent novel, Divine Days, is set in Forest County, a reinvented Chicago which also serves as the setting for his previous three novels. The protagonist and narrator, Joubert Antoine Jones, is a literal orphan in search of a spiritual father, and more than a thousand pages comprise the narrative of his week. Divine Days resembles Joyce's Ulysses not just in terms of size and scope, but in its rich variety of language/voice and ways of storytelling. And Joubert, like Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, needs to find a spiritual father in order to develop a sense of identity. Joubert, "hypersensitively attuned to the sound of voices, babblings, other-wordly and worldly tongues," is a playwright, reporter, and self-appointed detective, historian, and curator of stories. He is ostensibly collecting materials for what is to be his chef d'oeuvre, Divine Days, but what unfolds is an awesome encyclopedia of the African American consciousness.
This consciousness is expressed through the multifarious faces, adventures, and hardships of a metropolis of characters - preachers, police, ex-boxers, steelworkers, dancers, Creoles, intellectuals, prostitutes, hustlers, and a one-time Shakespeare professor. Joubert ("Jew-bear") has a name which lends itself to many affectionate and not-so-affectionate appellations: Brudder-Bear, Sugar-Bear, Baby-Bear, Brer-Bear, Bear-Meat. He may be an orphan, but he is strongly linked to and clamorously claimed by Forest County. He has grown up in Eloise's Night Light Lounge and (Oscar) Williemain's barbershop, places which serve as the gravitational centers for the characters who tear up Forest County. His aunt is a gossip columnist who literally keeps files on everybody; his work at the barbershop shining shoes and at the Night Light mixing drinks sets him right in the middle of all the action, news, wishful thinking, and storytelling.
Just returned from two years of military service, Joubert decides to write a play about Sugar-Groove, a hustler, ladies' man, Mississippi mixed-blood, and Italian-shoe-wearing trickster figure who has that aforementioned "stamp and style and elegance." His legendary charisma, and specifically his ability to magnify himself through multiple invention, gives rise to endless stories. (Oscar) Williemain tells Joubert:
There was Sugar-Ditch for his home town, but the only other I was aware of (Sugar-Dripper, Sugar-Dipper, Sugar-Groove, Sugar-Grove, Sugar-Spook, Sugar-Goose, Sugar-Sack, Sugar-Shank, Sugar-Swift, Sugar-Alley, Fountain-Head Sugar, Sugar-Stoker, Sugar-Stroke, Sugar-Splib, Sugar-Stagger, Sugar-Saint, Sugar-Spine, Sugar-Dick, Sugar-Stud, Sugar-Loaf, Sugar-Smoke, Sugar-Shit, Sugar-Eyes, and Sugar-Shark) referred to various tributes paid to his revealed sexual merriment and moxie prowess.
One of the novel's great tales is Williemain's account of Sugar-Groove in heaven. He pulls an old, patched-up set of wings from the Catholic Free Will bin and flies around heaven at supersonic speeds with one wing tied behind him. This behavior sends St. Peter into a tailspin:
But tell me how are you - doing it? Particularly the way you do that little sweep around under a cloud pocket, carry up through cross-around corkscrew-outside-in a floating fashion, back shaking a tail feather, breathlessly - meantime you are actually going so fast you're threatening to break the sound barrier. . . . And, Sugar-Ditch if all of this wasn't ruinous enough, you got a legion of young white angels going crazy over you painting their faces tan, over berry black and calling themselves The Sugar-Stomping Honkie Bears, and they are trying to imitate your every turn twist, shake, fling, hop, bop, at breakneck speed.
To some in Forest County, Sugar-Groove is simply a stylish rascal, or a good story. But, to Joubert, he possesses an intensity of personal passion and an acumen for improvisation that make him a model for his people and his time.
Sugar-Groove's diametric opposite, W.A.D. (Wizard Alpha Decathalon) Ford, is a negative trickster figure. He is, like Sugar-Groove, charismatic, very sexual, and somewhat mythic. But unlike Sugar-Groove he is a demagogue and cult leader, and abuses his community, pulling a snow job on his people in the name of his own primacy. He keeps a blonde mistress, performs sexual initiations on the new female members of his church, and is also central to Joubert's play-in-progress.
Forrest definitely has strong feelings against orders and cults, and includes in Divine Days implicit and explicit criticisms even of Malcolm X. He outlines the spiritual dangers of hero worship not only by representing the blindness of Ford's followers, but also by representing the follower of real movements contemporary to 1966, the year in which the book is set. De Loretto/Imani is Joubert's love interest, a painter and a collector of African masks, and a proponent of the back-to-Africa movement. Already in debt, she hands over large sums of money to pay for back-to-Africa weekend retreats. Forrest represents her project of reuniting the members of her biological and cultural family, however, as deeply frustrated. She tries to heal her community without comprehending its divisiveness. As it turns out, her African masks are used to transport hard drugs, and when her brother Sambi comes home after her death, he's not motivated by love or grief - he just wants to repossess his stash.
We won't tell you how the book ends, but we will say that Joubert's "detective work" is really a process of self-education, and education about himself and his culture. It's necessary for him to know both Ford and Sugar-Groove before he can sit down to pen his opus. To St. Peter, who can't "find the proper words to express the meanings of all [Sugar-Groove's] carryings on," Joubert can respond at the close of the novel, "No, St. Peter you can't. . . . That's my job."
Charles Johnson labeled Forrest's first three novels "wreckingly hard to read," and a number of items are "hard" in Forrest's fiction: what he does with chronology, the breadth of his sources, the way memory blends into action and then back again quickly and quietly. Perhaps the most distressingly difficult aspect of his work, however, has been his style. Until Divine Days, Forrest's works displayed a uniformly ornate style that did not differentiate characters or invite a readership. The heavy luxury of Forrest's younger voice can dull one to the narrative elements at hand. While Forrest can still be "hard" in Divine Days, somehow the dominance of this voice is broken in his most recent novel. Finally, the amazing symphony of sources Forrest accesses - myth, folklore, classics, tall tales, jazz, jive - is accessible to us, and each element sounds individually.
Michelle Cliff continues the theme of orphanhood in her novel Free Enterprise, representing characters who inhabit "a confused universe . . . with no center and no outward edge." Free Enterprise moves back and forth across a period that extends from sometime before 1858 to 1920, concerning itself with characters involved in tensions of the pre-Civil War period, and how the events precipitated by those tensions affect the rest of their lives. Annie Christmas is a Jamaican woman of mixed descent whose family, on account of light skin, has managed to shoulder its way into the upper classes, and isn't about to look back:
Her mother's family tree was constructed of mythopoetic tales, seemingly devised to entertain a child rather than form the basis of a dynasty. The tree branched into swash-bucklers, riders on the Spanish main, swordsmen, petty nobility, an aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington, an Arawak or two - but not the anthropophagic Carib - a female pirate who begged off execution due to motherhood, but never the guineaman, the driver, the cane cutter, the furious Maroon.
Unwilling to refashion her roots, Annie departs for the mainland to join the radical abolitionist movement. In the course of her political education she meets Mary Ellen Pleasant, a figure Cliff restores to history by drawing on a frontier legend and a message, signed "M.E.P.," that was found on the body of John Brown following the attempted raid on Harper's Ferry. Brown's co-conspirator Mary Ellen Pleasant runs a string of hotels in San Francisco, servicing white frontiersmen with perfectly feigned humility while concealing escaped slaves and funneling profits into the movement.
Mary Ellen and her spiritual daughter Annie Christmas both survive the raid and the war years, and their memories, their correspondence, and the latter events of their lives make up much of the story of Free Enterprise. Mary Ellen continues her work, but the events of the war lead Annie to retreat to a shack on the banks of the Mississippi, where her only neighbors are the inmates of a leper colony:
Leprosy, the reverend mother explained to Annie flourished among the darker races. Indeed, the lepers hailed from all over the non-Western world. They came from the Caribbean, the American West, . . . the Sea Islands, as well as Hawaii, the Philippines, the northern coast of South America, and Africa.
The quarantine on the lepers, Cliff implies, is exactly synonymous with the condition of their counterparts in the outside world. Free Enterprise begins and ends with a picture of Annie at her shack and at the colony, where the outcasts share alternative, previously silenced versions of recorded history. By these means, they subvert and fill in an incomplete record of the past.
Michelle Cliff's strength lies in the fact that she calls attention to the formation of this incomplete history, and that she is willing to unearth neglected or suppressed historical fact. "Who has ever heard of Annie Christmas, Mary Shadd Carey, Mary Ellen Pleasant?" she asks. "The official version has been printed, bound, and gagged, resides in schools, libraries, the majority unconscious." Cliff gives us in Free Enterprise the unofficial story, drawing attention to the roles of women in national events and rendering the texture of everyday life: that women made diaphragms from eelskin and abortive douches from alum, pearlash, white oak bark, and red rose leaves; that the first leper colony was established in New Orleans, and how; that the breadfruit tree was imported from Tahiti to Jamaica to supply a cheap slave diet.
Unfortunately, to readers who have enjoyed and learned from Cliff's previous fiction, Free Enterprise comes as something of a disappointment. The artistry of Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven are missing in this latest work. As in all of her stories, Cliff informs the reader of the little-known fact, but in Free Enterprise she often gives so little context or detail that it can be difficult to figure out exactly what that fact is. Moreover, the Annie Christmas of the novel is nothing like her namesake, the Annie Christmas of Southern folklore. According to Robert San Souci's Cut From the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale, Annie Christmas was a black woman, longshoreman, fighter, and gambler. She poled down and up the Mississippi River, dusted men regularly (adding a freshwater pearl to her string of pearls for each victory), and was the center of countless stories told from "New Orleans to Natchez." Cliff transforms this figure of power and pride into a reclusive, introspective, and divided woman dealing in the echoes of the past on the shores of the Mississippi behind a grove of trees. Is Cliff trying to show anything here other than virtuosity in her knowledge of American folk culture? The way she collages elements can also be puzzling, as when the shadow of Malcolm X, "the hologrammatical man," visits Mary Ellen Pleasant and sings a few lines of an Aretha Franklin song.
Another concern is that, whereas Leon Forrest has discovered ways to vary his voice and recreate texture, Cliff's voice, surprisingly, appears to have smoothed out. The tone used throughout the book is faraway, antique, cool, and leveling. And even more unfortunate is the fact that, in Free Enterprise, Cliff can be obvious to an uninteresting degree. She depicts, in opposition to the radical members of the abolitionist movement, the simply liberal - white women of privilege. Independently wealthy Alice Hooper and her cousin Clover Hooper have the spare time to attend lectures and interest themselves in the movement as a way to invest their lives with meaning. They are in the end, despite their "good intentions," ignorant, neurotic, appropriating, and racist. However, there is something completely dreary about Cliff's representation of Alice and Clover above and beyond the perfect obtuseness of the two characters. It's hard to explain but easy to feel when, for example, you contrast Free Enterprise with Langston Hughes's 1933 short-story collection The Ways of White Folks. In his stories about the strange and awful relationships "some white folks" establish with blacks, Hughes can express in one stroke both satire and tragedy, slapstick and sorrow, comedy and an apprehension of the infinity of flawed and twisted relationships that racism brings forth. Cliff's racist white characters, on the other hand, are treated to an umixed, sneering condescension that leaves them as flat and uninteresting as cardboard cutouts.
The shortcomings of her latest book aside, Cliff is a unique writer. She addresses issues of racism, feminism, and classism present in a contradictory world using a style that draws upon oral tradition and myth to reinvent a "New-World" present.
A character in Free Enterprise says, "'We must become talking books; talk it on, like the Africans, children. Talk it on.'" Forrest and Cliff, talking it on, are doing new things in fiction. Cliff pulls old photos from the library and accesses the buried legends and events of the pre-Civil War era; Forrest takes the dozens off the streets and expands them to a glorious number of pages. And when they succeed in translating the sense and sound, as well as the substance, of their source material, then they can make these things really sing.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
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