Middle Passage: Swashbuckling, marauding page-turner

Book review: Charles Johnson’s prose is exceptional on the best and worst humanity

Middle Passage
Middle Passage
Author: Charles Johnson
ISBN-13: 9781529078107
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £9.99

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

Holding its own midway down is Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990), an honest-to-God adventure novel that slots as comfortably alongside Moby-Dick, Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn as it does beside White Noise and American Psycho.

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

As the debt collectors close in, Calhoun shirks his responsibilities once again, bluffing his way onto quaking three-masted ship the Republic. As the only black crewmate on board a slave ship bound for the west coast of Africa, what ensues is Calhoun’s battle to stay alive.


Middle Passage is equal parts philosophical odyssey and swashbuckling, marauding page-turner. Like any great adventure story, the crew aboard the Republic are storied and haggard, unafraid and terrifying, and Calhoun is our guide through it all.

This novel has everything: swathes of blackmail, double-crossing, mutiny and allegiances, deck-breaking storms and sky-skimming waves, loves lost and longed for, and gallons and gallons of rum. Johnson’s prose is exceptional: a tightrope walk of the best and worst that humanity is capable of. The unflinching attention given to describing life aboard the Republic – in all its smells, sounds, sights, tastes and textures – simultaneously lures the reader in as much as it repels out of visceral disgust. And yet, Johnson’s prose is nothing short of sublime.

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