Middle Passage

This is my second recommendation on Wet Asphalt and the second that could be classified as an "adventure on the high seas." Clearly I have a soft spot. When we were working on What is Wet Asphalt, I had one book in the back of my head as the model for what we were talking about. Middle Passage by Charles Johnson is exactly the sort of mixture of technical craft, intelligence and ripping storytelling we're trying to promote here.

The protagonist of the novel, Rutherford Calhoun, is a freed slave who inadvertently ends up on a slave ship sailing to Africa in the early 19th century. At the outset the book feels like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel with a rogue cast in the main role. However, after the ship gets to Africa, the story abruptly takes a Borgesian right turn with the introduction of a mysterious tribe of Africans whose language "has little room for nouns" and a hallucination-inducing package in the hold that turns out to be their captured god.

The book has been played up, especially in University settings, as an
"African-American" novel, and yes it is a about a black man on a slaving ship in the nineteenth century. However, the ethnic marketing position (as is so often the case) doesn't exactly do justice to the breadth and appeal of the book (one would not, for instance, call it "urban fiction" and lump it in with Snoop Dogg's upcoming ghost-written novel). However, I'm not sure the book's back copy quite does it justice either—"this dazzling modern classic," the back tells us, "is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative, and philosophical novel." Which all makes the book sound a little daunting, and like it should be a lot longer than it's two hundred and some-odd pages. The fact is, Middle Passage is a fun read as much as anything else.

One thing I often wonder about is why a writer like Charles Johnson is so much less popular than other writers who are not only not as good, but also not as accessible. I just don't know the answer to that.