Mojo Snake Minuet: A Novel by John Litweiler
Review by Curtis Black in Newstips Blog
John Litweiler is the esteemed music critic who covered the early days of the AACM and has written about all manner of jazz for Downbeat, the Reader, the Sun-Times, the Tribune, etc., along with a book about free jazz and a biography of Ornette Coleman. Now he’s published his first novel, Mojo Snake Minuet, and it’s a murder mystery unlike any other murder mystery.
First of all, the sleuth is a music critic, and there are lots of music critic jokes. (At one point the hero faces a drawn gun; “he could imagine the headline: ‘Musician Kills Critic’ – it had to happen someday, but why me?”) So we have a satire of the music critic racket, which is badly needed and long overdue, but the satire doesn’t end there.
The central conceit of the novel is that black people run America and white people are the oppressed minority. There are white civil rights and white power movements, white alcoholics are hounded and imprisoned, and degenerate opera arias are performed in dingy nightclubs. At times the conceit is revealing, at times cumbersome, at times a little absurd, but it quickly subsides behind a cast of lively characters, with sharp, intelligent dialogue and wild action.
There’s Yakub Yakub, the handsome, callow young critic, his fecklessness shielded by a grandiose ego, who manages to be both laughable and likeable. There’s his boss, Chief Daniyal Kaida, the eccentric and autocratic owner of the Chicago Daily Messenger, who manipulates the city’s political elite as he looks out from the top-floor office in the Messenger Tower near the Michigan Avenue bridge. There’s Yakub’s old flame, Aisha Salim, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily Drum — and courageous supporter of civil rights for whites. There are a couple of pop divas, a couple of corrupt cops, a gangster kingpin and a renegade voodoo sect.
There’s a Back To Europe movement led by Bishop Joseph Johnson of the Church of St. Elvis (on 47th Street) and a thuggish white studies professor named Atilla Galahad.
The plot is complicated not just by a variety of crooks who are after the same treasure, but by two separate investigators, after the certified licensed private witch Shadow Mbalabala joins the chase. We meet him in his shabby office over the Wabash el, where he’s reading a hardboiled witch thriller. In contrast to Yakub, he is quietly competent, jaded, sardonic, and a bit run-down.
It’s all wonderfully entertaining – but does the upending of our society’s racial paradigm serve any purpose beyond entertainment, and a writer’s exercise? I don’t know. It does put things in a different light, to say the least. It makes you think, in between laughs and thrills.
Review by Howard Mandel
....Outrageous characters derail the hunt, vivid scenes ensue — but solving the mystery isn’t the point of Litweiler’s satire, which joins those of Christopher Buckley, Carl Hiaasen and even Ishmael Reed as able to sustain fantastic premises with a straight enough face to keep readers clucking and chuckling to the end. The farce of racially or ethnically based social hierarchies is the author’s point, of course, one he’s made overtly and covertly throughout his 40-plus-year career as a Chicago-based jazz journalist....
Litweiler is fairly merciless in Mojo Snake Minuet, skewering Yakub, his boss and would-be femme fatales as well as recording industry gangsters, academically cozened theoretical provocateurs, “Zonbie”-seeking spiritualists and of course Chicago’s crooked cops, often with economically turned phrases. “Authority is despicable, Yakub knew, and he wanted some,” the author writes; also, “Since hatred shared is joy multiplied….” He spoofs Faulkner with long sentences in long paragraphs compressing luridly dramatic history, and offhandedly nails the baseless faith that’s the lifeblood of his own profession: “There’s nothing more socially significant than being a critic, because when the public’s appreciation of fine art rises to higher levels of sophistication, it’ll inevitably lead to creating a better world.” He knows what he’s doing: “[T]hey died as they lived. Like characters in a lousy novel or a third-rate B-movie. A movie with bad wisecracks for dialogue, with a stolen gimmick, with an over-complicated plot, with dark shadows and weird camera angles, with shady ladies and sleazy men and other absurd characters, with too much violence, with mindless sex. Well, okay, mindless, but not much sex.”
Self-reflective though the description might seem, it encapsulates the ploy that drives the book: Litweiler’s clear-eyed but subversive critique of bias and self-delusion, whatever its source. This is a great theme and a jazz theme, to the extent that jazz righteously blasts past b.s. to get to fresh thinking that resounds with everybody....That it rings so true in Mojo Snake Minuet via its central conceit, the easy-to-propound, hard-to-realize reversal of the cultural mirror, attests to Litweiler’s acute critical perspective. That his novel keeps us in gasps and guffaws proves he’s also a very funny man.