Middle Passage: Swashbuckling, Marauding Page Turner

Book title:
Middle Passage


Charles Johnson


Guide price:

Books reissued as part of the Picador Collection series make up an eclectic list of modern classics. The exhausted “modern classic” descriptor tends to deflect rather than bolster a book these days, but, when set aside, the strength of this list is undeniable; it boasts humble heavyweights such as Hanya Yanagihara, Lucia Berlin and Cormac McCarthy, as well as nearly half a dozen titles each from Don DeLillo and Jamaica Kincaid.

Halfway through, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) is an honest-to-God adventure novel that fits as comfortably alongside Moby-Dick, Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn as it does alongside White Noise and American Psycho. .

Newly freed slave Rutherford Calhoun finds himself in New Orleans – “a city doomed to an almost religious pursuit of sin” – taking full advantage of the city’s debauched excesses of gambling, booze and cheap sex. For the light-fingered Calhoun, no doors are locked and everything is sensory and satisfying; well, until it’s not.

As the debt collectors close in, Calhoun once again shirks his responsibilities, making his way onto the trembling Republic three-master. As the only black teammate aboard a slave ship bound for the West Coast of Africa, what ensues is Calhoun’s battle to stay alive.

Middle Passage is both a philosophical odyssey and a swashbuckling page-turner. Like any great adventure story, the crew aboard the Republic are legendary and haggard, fearless and terrifying, and Calhoun is our guide through it all.

This novel has it all: swaths of blackmail, double-crossing, mutiny and allegiances, bridge-breaking storms and sky-grazing waves, lost and desired loves, and gallons and gallons of rum. Johnson’s prose is exceptional: a tightrope walk of the best and the worst of which humanity is capable. The unrelenting attention given to depicting life aboard the République – in all its smells, sounds, sights, tastes and textures – simultaneously draws the reader in as much as it repels them in visceral disgust. And yet, Johnson’s prose is nothing short of sublime.

Through Rutherford Calhoun’s journey, Johnson examines the place newly freed slaves held in 19th-century America, particularly as modern capitalism accelerated. Middle Passage surpasses the most notable adventure novels in its study of the human condition, but without compromising the self-indulgent heroism and dangers that instill in readers the need to find out what happens next.