Meteor in the Madhouse
Reviewed by Roger Gathman, Fri., April 20, 2001
Meteor in the Madhouseby Leon Forrest
TriQuarterly Books, 254 pp., $26.95
When Ahab went down on his "all-destroying but unconquering whale," an ironically self-consuming allegory was born -- for didn't Melville's own career as a writer go down, in the publishing world, after Moby Dick sank without a bubble? There's a daemonic strain in American literature, a fate doled out to unzeitgemässige talents, to use Nietzsche's untranslatable phrase: un-hip hipness, uncontemporary contemporaries. Melville and William Gaddis are two well-known examples. Less known is the late Leon Forrest.
Leon Forrest's Divine Days is perhaps the black planet George Clinton was forecasting, but its collision with Earth has yet to be recorded on the seismographs. Something in the book requires a slo-mo reader response. This is a serious joke it will take the next couple of generations to get. The novel is set over the course of a week in Chicago at that very rich historic moment, in 1966, when the Civil Rights movement was shifting into the Black Power movement. King was losing his iconic authority to the martyred Malcolm X, and Joubert Jones -- the narrator of Divine Days -- was finally out of the army, into which he had been drafted. For 1,135 pages, Joubert weaves into and out of barbershops, newspaper offices, his apartment house (stocked with Afro-centric eccentrics, students, and the autodidactic intellectuals he labels "Deep Brown Study Eggheads") listening to stories, political arguments and gossip, and playing the dozens. To shorthand a complex story, Joubert is a black Stephen Daedelus, and Chicago is his Dublin.
For his pains, Forrest was greeted with some praise from the usual suspects -- the honorable Stanley Crouch, the ever-commending Henry Louis Gates -- and general oblivion. Forrest's posthumous Meteor in the Madhouse is a continuation of his hocused opus, but comes in at a much more manageable 254 pages.
The book puts finis to Joubert's story. He is now a successful playwright and a tenured professor (just as Forrest was, at Northwestern). Coming home from a creative writing conference on a bus, Jones phases into memories that run through the four novellas in the book. In particular, he remembers the day in November, 1972, when he appeared on TV, having talked his friend Marvella, who is going beserk with a gun, into surrendering to the police. That same day, Joubert was persuaded to visit his shadow side and cousin, Leonard Foster, who is temporarily residing in an Illinois nuthouse, by Joubert's girlfriend, Shirley Polyneices. Joubert has a galling effect upon Foster -- where Joubert is happy to spread ironizing jive over a situation, Foster is a man who shrivels up without some Absolut at his back. We then switch to Joubert's days at the Avon, the hotel near the University of Chicago where Joubert moved at the end of Divine Days. The long section, "All Floundering Oratorio of Souls," tells the story of one of these eggheads, Shep Bottomly, a black Marxist of rigid character and many proofs, clipped out of many newspapers, of the coming collapse of the capitalist world order. His world-view of universal exploitation stops at his own door, however -- he is seemingly unaware that he is wringing surplus value out of his girlfriends, upon whom he unloads his harangues and his dirty laundry.
To appreciate this book, it helps if you know something about Forrest's life. Forrest was a Chicagoan, a onetime editor of Muhammed Speaks. Forrest was not himself a Moslim or Muslim -- but he was privileged to witness one of those magical moments when deep structure, that fabulous theoretical construct, emerges like the monster from the Black Lagoon into historic actuality. That's how he viewed the dialectical push 'n' pull between Elijah Mohammed and his spiritual son and final foe, Malcolm X. For Forrest, Elijah Mohammed was the superior player, his life a repository of all the moves, from Uncle Remus' tar baby to Motown con, and the allegorical inversion of America's racial hierarchy which he invented and mythologized (the Black Muslim story is that the White Man was invented in the devil's laboratory in a sort of parody and assimilation of a grade-B sci-fi flick).
The tug between ruse and resistance, in Meteor in the Madhouse, is on one level the gripe between Joubert Jones and Leon Foster. But Forrest's textual playhouse shouldn't be tied to the "one-trope-fits-all" school of interpretation. He loves to make narrative move in any direction -- side to side, backward, forward, in jumps and lumps, by the vagaries of associations discovered in the language, the way word and fact will crash, with a consequent mutual leaving of scars. One of the characters in Meteor writes a book about Joubert's tragic aunt, Lucasta Jones, in which with pen and ink sketches, "he attempted to arrest the motions of Lucasta Jones, from the flight of dance to the printed page." Forrest's prose aspires to the condition of dance, and often achieves that magical thing, the tight balance between inspiration and misstep.