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Mumbo Jumbo Paperback – June 11, 1996

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Ishmael Reed, a novelist, poet, essayist, and activist, is the author of more than a dozen books. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth and is currently a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Oakland, California.

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Mumbo Jumbo

2 With the astonishing rapidity of Booker T. Washington's Grapevine Telegraph Jes Grew spreads through America following a strange course. Pine Bluff and Magnolia Arkansas are hit; Natchez, Meridian and Greenwood Mississippi report cases. Sporadic outbreaks occur in Nashville and Knoxville Tennessee as well as St. Louis where the bumping and grinding cause the Gov to call up the Guard. A mighty influence, Jes Grew infects all that it touches.

3 Europe has once more attempted to recover the Holy Grail and the Teutonic Knights, Gibbon's "troops of careless temper," have again fumbled the Cup. Instead of raiding the Temples of Heathens they enact their blood; in the pagan myth of the Valkyrie they fight continually; are mortally wounded, but revived only to fight again, taking time out to gorge themselves on swine and mead. But the Wallflower Order had no choice. The only other Knight order had been disgraced years before. Sometimes the Wallflower Order was urged to summon them. Only they could defend the cherished traditions of the West against Jes Grew. They would be able to man the Jes Grew Observation Stations. But the trial which banished their order from the West's service and the Atonist Path had been conclusive. They were condemned as "devouring wolves and polluters of the mind."

The Jes Grew crisis was becoming acute. Compounding it, Black Yellow and Red Mu'tafikah were looting the museums shipping the plunder back to where it came from. America, Europe's last hope, the protector of the archives of "mankind's" achievements had come down with a bad case of Jes Grew and Mu'tafikah too. Europe can no longer guard the "fetishes" of civilizations which were placed in the various Centers of Art Detention, located in New York City. Bootlegging Houses financed by Robber Barons, Copper Kings, Oil Magnets, Tycoons and Gentlemen Planters. Dungeons for the treasures from Africa, South America and Asia.

The army devoted to guarding this booty is larger than those of most countries. Justifiably so, because if these treasures got into the "wrong hands" (the countries from which they were stolen) there would be renewed enthusiasms for the Ikons of the aesthetically victimized civilizations.

4 1920. Charlie Parker, the houngan (a word derived from n'gana gana) for whom there was no master adept enough to award him the Asson, is born. 1920-1930. That 1 decade which doesn't seem so much a part of American history as the hidden After-Hours of America struggling to jam. To get through.

Jes Grew carriers came to America because of cotton. Why cotton? American Indians often supplied all of their needs from one animal: the buffalo. Food, shelter, clothing, even fuel. Eskimos, the whale. Ancient Egyptians were able to nourish themselves from the olive tree and use it as a source of light; but Americans wanted to grow cotton. They could have raised soybeans, cattle, hogs or the feed for these animals. There was no excuse. Cotton. Was it some unusual thrill at seeing the black hands come in contact with the white crop?

According to the astrologer Evangeline Adams, America is born at 3:03 on the 4th of July, Gemini Rising. It is to be mercurial, restless, violent. It looks to the Philippines and calls gluttony the New Frontier. It looks to South America and intervenes in the internal affairs of its nations; piracy is termed "bringing about stability." If the British prose style is Churchillian, America is the tobacco auctioneer, the barker; Runyon, Lardner, W.W., the traveling salesman who can sell the world the Brooklyn Bridge every day, can put anything over on you and convince you that tomatoes grow at the South Pole. If in the 1920s the British say "The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire," the American motto is "There's a Sucker Born Every Minute." America is the smart-aleck adolescent who's "been around" and has his own hot rod. They attend, these upstarts, a disarmament conference in Washington and play diplomatic chicken with the British, advising them to scrap 4 hoods including the pride of the British Navy: H.M.S. King George the 5th. Bulldog-faced British Admiral Beatty leaves the room in a huff.

5 The Wallflower order attempts to meet the psychic plague by installing an anti-Jes Grew President, Warren Harding. He wins on the platform "Let's be done with Wiggle and Wobble," indicating that he will not tolerate this spreading infection. All sympathizers will be dealt with; all carriers isolated and disinfected, Immumo-Therapy will begin once he takes office.

Unbeknown to him he is being watched by a spy from the Wallflower Order. A man who is to become his Attorney General. (He is also surrounded by the curious circle known by historians as "The Ohio Gang.")

The 2nd Stage of the plan is to groom a Talking Android who will work within the Negro, who seems to be its classical host; to drive it out, categorize it analyze it expell it slay it, blot Jes Grew. A speaking scull they can use any way they want, a rapping antibiotic who will abort it from the American womb to which it clings like a stubborn fetus.

In other words this Talking Android will be engaged to cut-it-up, break down this Germ, keep it from behind the counter. To begin the campaign, No DANCING posters are ordered by the 100s.

All agree something must be done.

"Jes Grew is the boll weevil eating away at the fabric of our forms our technique our aesthetic integrity," says a Southern congressman. "1 must ponder the effect of Jew Grew upon 2,000 years of civilization," Calvinist editorial writers wonder aloud.

6 New Orleans is a mess. People sweep the clutter from the streets. The city's head is once more calm. Normal. It sleeps after the night of howling, speaking-in-tongues, dancing to drums; watching strange lights streak across the sky. The streets are littered with bodies where its victims lie until the next burgeoning. 1 doesn't know when it will hit again. The next 5 minutes? 3 days from now? 20 years? But if the Jes Grew which shot up a trial balloon in the 1890s was then endemic, it is now epidemic, crossing state lines and heading for Chicago.

Men who resemble the shadows sleuths threw against the walls of 1930s detective films have somehow managed to slip into the Mayor's private hospital room. They have set up a table before his bed. A man wearing a mask that reveals only his eyes and mouth calls the meeting to order.

This is an inquiry, it seems, and the man officiating wants to get to the bottom of why the Mayor, a Mason, allowed his Vital Resistance to wear down before Jes Grew's Communicability. This augurs badly, for if Jes Grew is immune to the old remedies, the saving Virus in the blood of Europe, mankind is lost. No word of this must get out. The Mayor even volunteers to accept the short bronze dagger and "get it over with." All for the Atonist Path. The visitors await his final groan, and when the limp hand falls to the side of the bed and begins to swing, they leave as quickly as they came.

This was no ordinary commission. When an extraordinary antipathy challenges the Wallflower Order, their usual front men, politicians, scholars and businessmen, step aside. Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies. Another author suggested that the Nursery Rhyme and the book of Science Fiction might be more revolutionary than any number of tracts, pamphlets, manifestoes of the political realm.

7 New York is accustomed to gang warfare. White gangs: the Plug Uglies, the Blood Tubs of Baltimore, the Schuylkill Rangers from Philadelphia, the Dead Rabbits from the Bowery, the Roaches Guard and the Cow Bay Gangs terrorize the city, loot, raid and regularly fight the bulls to a standoff.

A gang war has broken out over Buddy Jackson, noted for his snappy florid-designed multicolored shoes and his grand way of living. There are legends about him. He went into the police station and knocked the captain cold when he didn't come forward with policy protection. Later, while orators and those affected with "tongues and lungs" were rapping as usual, he sent a convoy into Peekskill and rescued "Paul from the Crackers."

Schlitz, "the Sarge of Yorktown," a Beer Baron, has a lucrative numbers and Speak operation in Harlem. His stores are identified by the box of Dutch Masters in the window.

1 day, collection day, 3 Packards roll up to a store, 1 of the fronts belonging to the Sarge. The street, located in Harlem, is unusually quiet. The only sounds heard are the Sarge's patent-leather shoes coming in contact with the pavement. Where are the salesmen, the New Negroes, the "ham heavers," "pot rasslers" and "kitchen mechanics" on their way to work? Where are the sugar daddies and their hookers, the peddlers, the traffic cops, the reefer salesmen who usually stand on the corners openly peddling their merchandise? (Legal then.) There are no revelers and no chippies. The streets are deserted...

Schlitz looks into the window of his 1st store. What? No Rembrandt Dutch Masters but the picture of Prince Hall founder of African Lodge #1 of the Black Masons stares out at Schlitz, "the Sarge of Yorktown."

The mobster moves on, the 3 Packards following his course. The next store, the same story. The portrait of Prince Hall dressed in the formal Colonial outfit of his day, the frilled white blouse and collar showing beneath the frock coat and vest. The short white wig.

The painting is so realistic that you can see his auras. In his right hand he holds the charter the Black Freemasons have received from England. Schlitz shrugs his shoulders, puts a cigar in his mouth and walks over to the curb to speak to the driver of 1 of the Packards. He feels something cold at the back of his neck. He turns to see Buddy Jackson standing behind him, aiming a Thompson Automatic at him. The gun which has acquired the name of "The Bootlegger's Special."

Packing their heat, the hoods begin to open the...

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st Scribner Paperback Fiction Ed edition (June 11, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684824779
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684824772
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,470 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) is an acclaimed multifaceted writer whose work often engages with overlooked aspects of the American experience. He has published ten novels, including Flight to Canada and Mumbo Jumbo, as well as plays and collections of essays and poetry. He was nominated for a National Book Award in both poetry and prose in 1972. Conjure (1972), a volume of poetry, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and his New and Collected Poems: 1964-2006 (2007) received a Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California. Reed has also received a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Blues Song Writer of the Year award from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame, a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the National Institute for Arts and Letters, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Reed taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for thirty-five years and currently lives in Oakland, California.

Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 89 people found the following review helpful By notaprofessional VINE VOICE on July 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book is getting a bad rap from editorial reviews on this page--all seemingly from the same college English class who were apparently required to write reviews whether they had anything to say or made an earnest attempt at reading. (Thanks for the sharing your tantrums with us, Teach.)
It's great. There's a story there, but it doesn't read like Aesop or Mother Goose. There are themes and messages aplenty, but not if you focus on your frustration with the look and feel of the book. As other reviews have indicated, there is a collage effect here. The juxtaposition of historical and fictional characters and situations is a tongue-in-cheek way of understanding how the dead white men of yore responded to the presence of an African cultural presence in the US despite myriad safeguards against it.
In Reed's nothing-short-of-brilliant book, the Wallflower Order (guess which of the two previously described groups they are) get all bent out of shape because there's this "mumbo jumbo" "voodoo" dancing breaking out even in society's most prudish circles. Where did it come from? It "Jes Grew". And so it becomes--an epidemic!
Anyone who has ever considered the question of "soul" will enjoy this book. Anyone who enjoys detective novels would really like this book as that is the basic style--but if you're coming straight from Agatha Christie, maybe do some decompression someplace before you dive in, 'cause it won't be as rigidly predetermined.
If you go to an airport bookshop and see plenty formulaic bestsellers you'd rather read, stick with your conscience and do that. If you're ready to read a book that invites you to take part in the construction of the plot, this book is for you.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
The hero is PaPa LaBas, a New Orleans "houngan" who is trying to discover the source (the Text) of a "psychic plague" called "Jes Grew" which is sweeping the nation in the 1920s (whether you interpret it to mean Ragtime or the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance). J.G.C.s, or its "carriers," are overcome by a passionate desire to dance and have a good time. Their militant wing, the "Mu'tafikah" (I love that name), are involved in activities like art-napping non-Western artifacts (African masks and sculpture, a giant Olmec head from Central America) from the Center of Art Detention (which not surprisingly, has the same address as the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and returning them to the places where they come from. They're opposed by the "Atonists" (the bluenoses, those dedicated to the glorification of Western culture, the Protestant work ethic, etc.) and its affiliated organization, the Wallflower Order (whose motto is "Lord, if I can't dance, no one will"). Reed's work always lampoons historical figures, fictional and literary characters, and especially religion. The character named "Hinckle Von Vampton" (a parody of Carl Van Vechten, the literary agent for many black writers in the 1920s) is a Wallflower member who infiltrates the Harlem community to manipulate its artists and destroy the movement. He plans to start a magazine featuring a Talking Android who will tell the J.G.C.s that Jes Grew is not ready for primetime and "owes a large debt to Irish Theater." Reed satirizes everyone and everything from Warren G.Read more ›
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Larry Leroy on February 2, 2000
Format: Paperback
This novel is not going to appeal to those with a need for a clear and linear narrative. Much like the Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, this books grabs the reader and drags him through a thousand years of history.
Make sure that you have done a refresher on the Crusades and the Harlem Renaissance so you can keep up with the some of the allusions. Make no mistake this is a dense little novel and requires close attention to all the characters and the different names they go buy.
Though difficult, the novel turns out to be one of the finest and most innovative in it depiction of the how race and culture have come to together and tranformed one another in America.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Sossaman on February 11, 1999
Format: Paperback
I've read this novel three times and think it will become a twentieth-century classic, and one of the most enjoyable ones at that. Mumbo Jumbo suggests an explanation for why white culture and black culture in the US are so different (white culture into death and repression, black into earthiness and good living), mythically rooted in a split between the races at the time of the Osiris myth in Egypt. All this with great humor!
If you need a one sentence statement of its story, the novel is about how the white establishment tries to stamp out an epidemic of "jes grew," which is the need to dance, to express one's soul, embodied in jazz spreading from New Orleans to other cities, even (horrors!) to white youth. The novel uses postmodernist techniques (e.g. anomalies, pastiche, document quotation) and moves back and forth from its why whites can't dance and were alarmed at the "jungle music" of jazz and by the sensuality of the jitterbug, Black Muslim values (Reed doesn't like them), New Orleans voo doo,the Knights Templar, the Harlem Renaissance, and first world theft of other cultures' artifacts.
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