Rutherford Calhoun is a naive wiseacre, a freed slave brought up on a remote Illinois farm, where an abolitionist stuffed his head with learning to arm him against a hostile white world, then set him loose on the streets of New Orleans where, at age twenty-two, he whores and steals, gambles and runs up debts, and tries to control danger with a distancing ridicule. As Charles Johnson presents him, he sounds like a stand-up comic wandered back into the 1820s:
You have seen, perhaps, sketches of Piltdown man? Cover him with coal dust, add deerskin leggings and a cut-away coat tight as wet leather, and you shall have Santos’s younger, undernourished sister.
Santos is the monstrous slave bred up as a bare-knuckled fighter and freed into the service of “Papa” Zeringue, the Creole who presides over that world of interracial crime Calhoun has slipped into. Calhoun finds here a new form of slavery when his debts are bought up by a pious black schoolmarm who takes in crippled pets. Papa decrees a marriage with this reform-minded lady; but Calhoun sees himself sinking, like his brother, into a “gentleman of color”:
The phrase made me hawk, then spit in a corner of my mind. It conjured (for me) the image of an Englishman, round of belly, balding, who’d been lightly brushed with brown watercolor or cinnamon.
Fleeing to a New Orleans bar, Calhoun falls in with seamen:
All armed to the eyeballs with pistols and cutlasses, scowling and jabbering like pirates, squirting tobacco juice everywhere except in the spittoons—a den of Chinese assassins, scowling Moors, English scoundrels, Yankee adventurers, and evil-looking Arabs. Naturally, I felt pretty much right at home.
So to sea he goes, on a voyage that is part Robert Louis Stevenson and part Sebastian Brant, the fifteenth-century author of Ship of Fools. His ship, the Republic, is a process, always on the verge of sinking, remade with desperate patchings and repairs throughout the journey. The crew, too, seems assembled of replaceable parts, of eye patches, hand hooks, peg legs: “They had, like the monocular witches outwitted by Perseus, only two good teeth among them.” The first mate, who has “a core of aloneness within him that nothing on shore could touch,” makes up in worrying what the others lack: “So tense any clock he came close to ran, by my reckoning, forty seconds faster.”
The mad capitalist captain, who has stashed his cabin with spoils of the cultures he preys on, is shrewd and naive, more Melville’s Captain Delano than his Ahab. But occasionally, from under Delano’s complacent cap, the eyes narrow like Nixon’s:
He keeps a list of personal affronts, insults and abuses he’s received, or believes he’s received, and dates them—he reviews them when he’s drunk, keeps them alive, and always watches for a man’s weaknesses once he’s signed on.
More than once, his rages had sent men climbing to the crow’s-nest for …