All the elements of Leon Forrest's previous novels explode through the 1,135 pages of his recent epic novel Divine Days, which centers on one week in the life of aspiring playwright Joubert Jones in 1966. Tending bar in his aunt's tavern on Chicago's south side, Jones reflects on theology, African American history, and contemporary society as he observes the tragic, perverted, and often hilarious patrons. It's Forrest's own poetic blend of myth, folktale, and cultural insight, but wrapped in a great deal of humor.
"This book seemed to just grow on its own energies," Forrest says. "I couldn't stop it, and I was having so much fun I didn't want to stop it." When he took the huge manuscript to New York City publishers, they balked. He wasn't surprised. But instead of making draconian cuts, he took it to Another Chicago Press, a small nonprofit venture that, under publisher Lee Webster, has reprinted all of Forrest's early novels.
"They've been wonderful with me," says Forrest. "We have a nice working arrangement. Lee really went for the novel, and he's committed to keeping my work out--whereas a major would have canned it in six months."
Last summer 1,500 copies of the book were printed, and on the strength of glowing reviews in publications like Publishers Weekly, sales were brisk. Then in the fall ACP's distributor--the Independent Literary Publishers Association, a cooperative formed by a group of small Chicago-area presses that was incorporated in 1987--went belly-up. ILPA had been important in getting the publishers' books into the stores and in retrieving the money from sales. Unfortunately, it lost money every year; when it folded it owed ACP $45,000.
So last year Webster, who receives no income from ACP (he works as an operations analyst at R.R. Donnelley), kept ACP's stock in his office, which at the time was in the basement of his Oak Park home. Then on Christmas Day an electrical fire damaged nearly all of the books, including most of the copies of Divine Days.
ACP was left $40,000 in debt, but Webster is committed to reviving it. "We're dedicated right now to making Another Chicago Press a permanent, functioning cultural institution in Chicago," he says. A volunteer board of directors is in place, and the Talman Company will be the new distributor. The press, now in donated office space on North Michigan, also has a full-time managing editor and is going ahead with plans to release a collection of short stories by Richard Stern, Noble Rot, and Sterling Plumpp's Johannesburg and Other Poems.
To help out, a crop of local cultural celebs--including Forrest, Studs Terkel, and DuSable Museum founder Margaret Burroughs--will do a benefit marathon reading of Divine Days at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, on Saturday, May 15, from 12:30 to 4:30. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 to $30 at the door; for more information call 822-9090.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.