“Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a story of three generations of black men who are related by blood, but each struggles with their role of being a father and do not understand the heritage that bonds them and makes them who they are. The main character, Mo Johnson, a former soul star of the 70s, has just found out at age 49, he suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, which will have him forget who he is before the disease kills him. This news, as expected, spins his world out-of-control. Trey, his son, at 19 also has a son, spends his time dreaming to be a rap star and has no means of supporting himself beyond what his mother and father provide to him, and he has just been arrested for robbery and murder. Jack, Mo’s father, is dying of cancer and would like to see the son who has not spoken to him in 30 years, once more before he dies. While Mo’s initial reaction to this request is no, the circumstances on why Mo refuses to speak to his father forces him to change his mind, as there are some things Mo needs to say before his memory is gone. So, Mo decides to embark on a trip back home to L.A. from Maryland, taking Trey with him as while Mo has supported his son financially he has not given him time and attention and wants to now spend time with his son.
Leonard Pitts weaves a wonderful story which is both painful and truthful, yet with compassion so the reader is able to view the lives of each of these characters and understand who they are. As Mo and Trey drive across country, the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks, alternating with action in the current time. The characters’ voices for each of the generations were true to their times and I found myself smiling as I also heard the voices of the older and younger generations in my family. The most poignant of the storylines to me was the unfolding of the effect of Mo’s early-onset Alzheimer’s on him and his son, Trey.
Fathers are a major theme that affect both the major and secondary characters. The underlying question for the characters is what is a father and how do you effectively fill this role and more importantly, this book shows how black men wrestle with this issue and the different ways they come to terms with it. The author has the courage to address an issue that is on the minds of many in the black community and whether you agree with the characters’ decisions or not – you will appreciate the honest portrayal.
I recommend this book to all readers who are interested in a well-written story on current topics. This is a wonderful debut novel and I look forward to reading Mr. Pitts’ next book.