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Book Review

A Bad Moon's on the Rise and Bad Juju's Afoot in Blues Thriller

MOJO HAND; by Greg Kihn; Forge Books $23.95, 256 pages

November 25, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A brief survey of flap copy shows that virtually no writer these days springs full-blown from the head of Zeus, pen in hand. Everybody is a former something else, be it taxi driver, bartender, supermodel or dogwalker; every writer was once a real person, experiencing real life and real emotions before he or she retired to the existential hinterlands of Microsoft Word. Even rock 'n' roll--as otherworldly as it may be--qualifies as a proving ground for a would-be novelist: Witness the literary success of Kinky Friedman and the Dean of Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett.

Singer-songwriter Greg Kihn, whose mid-'80s hits "Jeopardy" and "The Breakup Song," may jog the memories of readers who did serious treadmill time in the early days of MTV, entered the lists a few years back with a couple of comedy thrillers that owed as much to "Night of the Living Dead" as to the days of the Grateful Dead. For his latest entertainment, "Mojo Hand," Kihn has dug solidly into the roots of rock and unearthed a premise that is pure gold.

Robert Johnson lives. Johnson, for those who have never heard the blues, was the legendary guitarist, singer and womanizer who sprang (without benefit of previous resume) from nowhere with a talent legend attributed to a deal made at a crossroads with the Devil himself, and died in 1938 at the hands of a jealous husband. Rediscovered in the '60s, Johnson's songs have been recorded by every great rock 'n' roller, from Eric Clapton to the Stones. But the rediscovery of his corporeal existence in "Mojo Hand" is cause for real celebration to the likes of Heath Prichard of the Crawlin' Kingsnakes, who takes full advantage of playing unplugged with the undead.

But the news isn't all swell for the blues. It is 1977. Every radio station is playing the Bee Gees. And if that isn't bad enough, "Somebody's killin' all the great bluesmen," says the great black harmonica player Oakland Slim to his white sidekick, Beau. Beau, last seen in Kihn's "Big Rock Beat," is a refugee from the Bay Area bands of the Summer of Love, who has found a certain peace and cachet as the white boy in the forgotten bayous of the blues. Yet that peace has been shaken. As he and Slim travel the country from juke joint to bar, they are witness to the seemingly unmotivated murders of one blues legend after another, from the decrepit guitarist Art "Spiderman" Spivey to the diamond-encrusted B. Bobby Bostic. Who knows, they may be next on the hit parade.

With the aid of the beautiful rock journalist Annie Sweeny, Beau and Slim follow a trail that leads to an albino maniac, a voodoo queen and the Mojo Hand, a talisman of deadly power. They also encounter raw R&B fraud and avarice. Robert Johnson, the greatest bluesman of them all, is more valuable, perhaps, dead than alive. "I can't think of another case like this," Annie says, "where a guy came back from the dead . . . in a legal sense, that is, to claim royalties."

Problem is, Kihn's gold ain't new. Sherman Alexie raised Johnson from the dead once before in his 1995 "Reservation Blues." Nor does Kihn always know what to do with his gold. More often than not, "Mojo Hand" reads like outtakes from a Firesign Theater "Nick Danger," with metaphors both marinaric ("Long white hair swung like limp pasta on either side of his gaunt face, framing it like a cheap Italian dinner") and questionable racial taste ("Slim cupped the harmonica like a loving King Kong caressing Fay Wray with his giant lips"). And some of Kihn's hypotheses--i.e., that Robert Johnson would respect the pale blues imitations of Elvis Presley--contradict the stature of a musical giant who towers over Elvis like, say, King Kong over Fay Wray.

For real classics of the FM shelf, the reader would be better off flipping the dial back to Walter Mosley's "RL's Dream" or T.C. Boyle's 1977 story about Robert Johnson, "Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail." Still, you gotta love a book in which the hero drives a push-button '67 Dodge Dart. There are, after all, stretches of the reading road, when AM books work just fine, and it is easy to drive with the top down and a mojo hand on the wheel.

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