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Friday, February 27, 2015

Charles Johnson

At a glance
Middle Passage
by Charles Johnson

224 pages, $12

As I type this, I hold in my hand well, not in my hand exactly a book by Charles Johnson titled "Oxherding Tale."

That is not the book that The Spokesman-Review Book Club will read for its July selection.

No, July's book is "Middle Passage" (Scribner, 224 pages, $12) by Charles Johnson, the novel that won the 1990 National Book Award for fiction.

My point in bringing up "Oxherding Tale" is this: It's been 15 years since Johnson won his NBA, and while he is no Oprah Book Club favorite such as, say, "The Corrections" author Jonathan Franzen, winner of the 2001 National Book Award he remains prolific. He's seen a dozen books go to print bearing his name: novels, story collections, essay collections and works that he's served as editor.

And most of his books can by purchased without too much effort (in fact, "Oxherding Tales" was just re-released in paperback).

Even so, Johnson's name in inextricably linked with "Middle Passage." Which is not a bad thing.

Set in 1830, "Middle Passage" tells the story of newly freed slave Rutherford Calhoun. Having ventured into New Orleans, Calhoun finds himself facing a choice: marriage to a woman he doesn't want or going to sea.

In fact, the novel's opening lines lay out our protagonist's predicament: "Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is woman."

In other words, the choice isn't all that difficult. But then the voyage turns out to be more difficult that Calhoun could have imagined. Related in a voice that belongs more to an 18th-century character from, say, the work of Henry Fielding, "Middle Passage" ends up giving us a look at the slave trade the book's title being the name of the portion of the trade between Africa and the West Indies.

But such a succinct plot description doesn't come near to doing the book justice. Johnson packs a lot of material in his book's relatively brief 224 pages.

As a reviewer for Publishers Weekly said, "Blending confessional, ship's log and adventure, the narrative interweaves a disquisition on slavery, poverty, race relations and an African worldview at odds with Western materialism. In luxuriant, intoxicating prose Johnson makes the agonized past a prism looking onto a tense present."

And, echoed the Los Angeles Times, "Highly readable by turns mimicking historical romance, slave narrative, picaresque tale, parable, and sea yarn, indebted to Swift, Coleridge, Melville, and Conrad."

None of the literary comparison should come as a surprise. Johnson would be familiar with all of them, having taught literature on the college level since 1974 (beginning as instructor at SUNY, Stony Brook and since 1976 at the University of Washington).

Yet Johnson is a man of many talents. Born in Carbondale, Ill., in 1948, he is a devotee of Buddhism, which he addressed most directly in his 2003 nonfiction book "Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing." Among the awards he has won, in addition to the NBA, are a 1988 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship and honorary degrees from Northwestern University and Southern Illinois University.

"Middle Passage" alone won a 1990 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and was selected as "required reading" for all Stanford University and Washington and Lee freshmen during the 1998-99 academic year.

Now it's our chance to experience "The Middle Passage." It's not a "required" read, mind you.

But it is highly recommended.

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