Charles Johnson, a 42-year-old professor of English at the University of Washington, erstwhile cartoonist, television writer, and the author of three novels and a collection of short stories, attained instant celebrity on Nov. 27 when his new novel, Middle Passage, received the National Book Award for fiction. He is only the fourth black writer to be so honored (after Ralph Ellison, Gloria Naylor, and Alice Walker). Yet the occasion was muddied by consternation in the press as to whether Johnson and three of the other nominees (Jessica Hagedorn, Felipe Alfau, Elena Castedo) were too obscure, their publishers too marginal. (Comparable reaction greeted the 1988 winner, Pete Dexter's Paris Trout fittingly, Johnson was one of the judges that year.) The New York Times, which characterized the voting as ''unusual'' in its ''divisiveness,'' seemed determined to find a conspiracy to explain the absence of best-sellers and major publishers and came up with a quote from juror Paul West that suggested an ethnic quota was at work.
What nonsense. Three of the five nominees (Johnson's novel, Joyce Carol Oates' Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, and Hagedorn's Dogeaters) had been widely praised in the past year, and except for Alfau's Chromos (Dalkey Archive Press), all were issued by prominent American publishers. Indeed, Johnson has had a following since 1974, when his first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, appeared. His 1982 novel, Oxherding Tale, confirmed him as a rare bird a novelist of ideas. His characters all speak with intimidating erudition. This is especially true of the former slave from Illinois, Rutherford Calhoun, who narrates the harrowing adventures, set in 1830, of Middle Passage.
A speculative thief and dandy who laps up the opulence of New Orleans, Calhoun is forced to make a quick escape when a woman and her sponsor, a Creole gangster, attempt to blackmail him into marriage. He goes to sea, only to find himself aboard a slaver captained by a malignant but exceedingly well-read dwarf, Ebenezer Falcon. The narrative takes the form of a journal kept by Calhoun. With disarming virtuosity, he combines 19th-century slang with the jargon of sailing, physics, and Greek mythology; he describes the appalling conditions of the journey with vivid precision. Yet the tale is leavened by wonderful physical humor and a fair amount of suspense, even melodrama. At its best, Middle Passage churns like an old-fashioned adventure novel, the kind associated with Robert Louis Stevenson and Captain Marryat, but with a wit and purpose more redolent of Joseph Conrad: ''Standing aft, looking back at the glittering lights ashore, I had an odd sensation, difficult to explain, that I'd boarded not a ship but a king of fantastic, floating Black Maria, a wooden sepulcher whose timbers moaned with the memory of too many runs of black gold between the New World and the Old.''
The book has its share of anachronisms (references to the ideas of Pierre- Joseph Proudhon long before he actually published them) and one or two cheap ironies (the final scene, in which Calhoun blackmails the gangster, reworks the opening in which he was himself blackmailed). Nonetheless, Middle Passage is so thick with ideas and the pleasures of an urgent narrative style, one can only be grateful to the National Book Award jurors for giving it a wider audience. A-