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 safety, and he’d turn to one of his officers, chuckling, “They think I’m loony.”
Johnson’s method is to build neat little structures of period detail, then shatter them with a defiant anachronism. The captain explains why he cannot give Calhoun a paying share on the boat. Calhoun might make a passable mate, but he is not one “to advance the position, or make a lasting breakthrough of any kind”:
I believe in excellence—an unfashionable thing these days, I know, what with headmasters giving illiterate Negroes degrees because they feel too guilty to fail them, then employers giving that same boy a place in the firm since he’s got a degree in hand and saying no will bring a gang of Abolitionists down on their necks.
Without realizing it, Calhoun has shipped onto an illegal slave ship, still bringing captives through the Middle Passage in 1830. On the shores of Africa, the comedy turns bitter:
How could I feel whole after seeing it? How could I tell my children of it without placing a curse on them forever? How could I even dare to have children in a world so senseless?
The most powerful two pages of the novel occur when Calhoun must throw a dead slave, a young man about his own age, overboard. The boy’s decomposing flesh seems to seep into Calhoun’s body as he handles it, effecting a weird transubstantiation.
Yet Calhoun continues to feel as distant from the captive “Allmuseri” as from their white captors. Even when an eight-year-old Allmuseri girl, Baleka, adopts him as her father, he has no trusted place with the Africans. They are as strange as their god, whom the captain has crated up (like a supernatural King Kong) and put in the hold—his climactic seizure of a foreign culture’s soul. This is a god who feeds on the people who go near the crate, absorbing them into him and infusing himself into them.
When the inevitable mutiny comes, Calhoun is caught between the first mate and the captain, like Jim Hawkins torn between Long John and Doctor Livesey. But at the crisis—when he finally understands his own brother’s nobility because he has come to care for someone (the Allmuseri girl)—he betrays both white factions to the Africans, who swarm up out of the hold bearing names taken from Benito Cereno. The captain, befuddled, asks:
“Then we underestimated the blacks? They’re smarter than I thought?”
“They’d have to be.”
In the aftermath of the revolt, Calhoun and some Allmuseri allies have trouble with an African demagogue, who wants to draw up new maps uncontaminated by the white man. Sorting out his own attitudes toward Africa, Calhoun finally goes down into the hold, sent there by the girl Baleka, to face the mystery of his own origins in the native god.
As the voyage doubles back to its beginning, Calhoun sees previously hidden aspects of his New Orleans—the schoolmarm has revealed her odd charm, so that the Creole boss Zeringue is about to marry her, a suitor to Penelope. She has been delaying him by knitting booties for her stray pets and unraveling them by night. In a loving sendup of The Odyssey, Calhoun thwarts Zeringue with an Allmuseri martial arts trick (like Odysseus’ bow feat) and a revelation from the ship’s log (the secret of Odysseus’ bed).
Johnson’s previous novels were not entirely saved from the pretentiousness of his own graduate training in philosophy by the wit that keeps his fictional Republic poising over the abyss.1 Here he has used an even older skill—Johnson’s first trade was as a cartoonist. The novel’s language is inventive in zany ways, full of learned and slangy inventions (glim, chaosmos, pungled, flimmer, mubblefuddled, turngiddy).
It is ironic that Johnson’s book won the National Book Award in a panel that was accused, by a judge on it, of choosing ideology over merit. Johnson’s merit is as obvious as his opposition to ideological formulas. In the novel as in his critical writing, Johnson resists the idea of expressing “black experience” as opposed to a black’s experience of his or her inevitably multicultural world.2 In the Republic every person is changed—for good and ill—by the presence of all the other persons on the ship. The process remakes the passengers as the boat is itself remade, by the task of sailing on. Everyone aboard goes to school to the others’ terrors. Even when he has cast his lot with the African rebels, Calhoun does not, like them, yearn back toward a home in Africa:
The States were hardly the sort of place a Negro would pine for, but pine for them I did…. If this weird, upside-down caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives—this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass—was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it. There, as I lay weakened from bleeding, was where I wanted to be. Do I sound like a patriot? Brother, I put it to you: What Negro, in his heart (if he’s not a hypocrite), is not?
January 17, 1991