Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale by J. J. Phillips (City Miner: $6.95; 180 pp.) : Reviewed by James A. Snead


It is an odd fact that despite the pre-eminence of such early giants as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, one tends today to think of the blues as a largely male form of expression. J. S. Phillips’ novel, “Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale,” first printed in 1966, is an often moving woman’s blues lament in literary form. “Mojo Hand,” Phillips’ first and only novel, describes in breathtakingly poetic prose (echoed throughout by italicized blues lyrics) the misadventures of a runaway black girl of about 20 named Eunice Prideaux.

One day in the early ‘60s, Eunice leaves her stifling San Francisco world of cotillions and tea parties, and, with little more than a guitar, journeys to Raleigh, N.C., in search of the “marrow of what made blues.” In particular, Eunice, a middle-class maenad, “has come to find her Orpheus” in the form of a blues guitarist and singer named Thomas Jefferson (Blacksnake) Brown, first heard on an old 78 r.p.m. record. Her escapades in various squalid Southern hotels and juke-joints reveal to her a primal, Orphic essence, “the source of herself, this music that moved her and the others, however much they tried to deny it.” “Mojo Hand” concentrates on the growth and decay of Eunice’s relations with her black Orpheus, Blacksnake, an affair that--given the Orphic parallels--ends with tragic predictability.

Most dictionaries of American slang define mojo incorrectly as “a narcotic,” but any lover of blues (“I got my mojo workin’ ”) or African religion (Dahomean or Haitian vodun ) will know that a mojo is a magical charm usually made by “conjure women” in a highly ritualized process, and then tied up and placed in a strategic location. A mojo “hand” (or charm) can induce either good or bad luck. After some vague madness sours Blacksnake’s affection for Eunice, she decides “it must be ended” and has a conjure woman named “Madame Karplus” tie up a “mojo hand” against him. With engaging urgency, events lead to a somewhat mystical conclusion: After Blacksnake’s death, Eunice, now pregnant, goes to his mother’s house to have his child. As in the Orpheus myth, Blacksnake figures as the bard whose songs make the sun rise, but who after death becomes the eternally reborn sun.

“Mojo Hand” anticipates the lessons of much recent black women’s fiction--here, the women hold things together, often literally tying random moments of humor and beauty into an at least tolerable daily tapestry. Phillips’ novel is true to its African and Greek antecedents, showing the uncanny links between musical, mystical and sexual intoxication. The moral ambiguities of these ties have rarely been so economically, knowingly, or eloquently portrayed as here. In a decade during which American readers are rediscovering and celebrating the misprized (and even suppressed) voices of black women writers, “Mojo Hand” represents a most timely and impressive spiritual chronicle.