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If you plow through (or skip over) Forrest's unreadably dense, ten-page ""List of Characters,"" you'll reach the slightly less convoluted now-and-flashback story of ""Mother-Witness"" Rachel Flowers, the children she bore, the children she adopted, and the orphans and bastards around them--all tracing back to the slaveowning Bloodworths and a network of sins. Unfortunately, the most sympathetic characters disappear early on: blind Rachel, who was exorcised--God said ""NO DEALS""--of her evil (two illegitimate, doomed sons by a Bloodworth scion) to become the envied, gospel-singing first lady of her church; Regal Pettibone, who drives a ""Lincoln chariot,"" sings gloriously with Rachel once a year, and sends his women ""first to ecstasy, then to chaos""; and Rachel's nurse, LaDonna Scales, ""foundling of the world."" After Rachel succumbs to cancer, LaDonna and Regal fall in love (haft-unaware of their incest) and, when LaDonna strays into the embrace of W. W. W. Ford (white slaver, drug pusher, dispenser of phony religion), the brother and sister die in inevitable violence. The rest of the book belongs to the intangible Ford, as his evil infects the innocent--chiefly Amos-Otis Thigpen (yet another sibling) and naive Nathaniel Witherspoon--and as he is talked about, endlessly, by the inmates of the music-rich asylum where unlucky Nathaniel lands. Forrest's prose is as thick as molasses and just as sticky--image after image that won't let go--and blends revival meeting rhythms (""Lord, Lord, LORD"") with a vocabulary attuned to the probing minds of the black achievers included in the immense cast. Sermons, exorcisms, two gargantuan deathbed speeches, and a symbolic tall tale of a ""serial hermaphrodite"" spill out in a Faulkneresque flood of bulging parentheses. It's worth hacking away at this jungle of words as long as Rachel and her closest kin are active, but when the circuitously connected episodes and hearsay take over, even the diligent reader will not find enough line-by-line rewards to redeem the page-by-page punishment.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1977
Publisher: Random House