Prize Passage

Garry Wills

December 04, 1990|By Garry Wills

THIS YEAR'S National Book Award for the novel has raised criticism from one of the judges that ideology rather than merit was at work in the selection. Since the novel is by a black, this strikes a tender spot in this season of restiveness over quotas, affirmative action and the ''politically correct'' treatment of minorities.

For these things to be brought up in the case of Charles Johnson's stunning work, ''The Middle Passage,'' is a measure of the bad faith with which many people piously claim they are all for ''qualified'' outsiders succeeding. Mr. Johnson's novel is not only a stylistic triumph; it is far from the ''ideological'' Afro-centrism that people who have not read it assume it must express.

The novel takes an educated black ex-slave from America back to Africa as a seaman on a merchant ship that picks up slaves. Africans are as odd to the black crewman as to most of his mates. In fact, the mystically greedy captain of the ship is closer to the tribal superstitions of his captives than is the skeptical young hero of the tale.

But in the dread passage home, as storms and mutiny and starvation torture all on board, people find the boundaries of their identity shifting and commingling. This does not make the American black become an African; but even some of the whites pick up certain qualities of endurance and tricks of survival from the blacks they need for completing their own rebellion.

Mr. Johnson describes a black's experience that, he's careful to emphasize, is not a solely ''black experience.'' The hero, on the verge of death, yearns toward a home very different from the one the recently removed Africans dream of: ''The States were hardly the sort of place a Negro would pine for, but pine for them I did. Even for that I was ready now, after months at sea. . . . 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 is not a hypocrite), is not?''

The story is too good to be reduced to polemic. It is, among other things, a kind of slap-happy takeoff on ''The Odyssey.'' It mixes Melville with Robert Louis Stevenson. It plays word games, inventing verbs with some of Raymond Chandler's virtuosity. It deserved to win.

Those who question its merit prove that merit is not the real concern of people who look fearfully at the achievements of non-whites.

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