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Sailing Against a Literary Tide : Books: Charles Johnson’s latest novel, ‘Middle Passage’ is a sea tale that also relates a slave rebellion. Once again, the critically acclaimed author defies categorization of his work.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixteen years ago, critics were describing “Faith and the Good Thing,” Charles Johnson’s book about a young black woman’s quest for the meaning of life, as “brilliant” and “ebullient,” the sort of first novel with which to anchor a major career.

Eight years later, his second novel, “Oxherding Tale,” traveled forlornly from publisher to publisher, like a flagless ship searching for a port, before diminutive Indiana University Press finally accepted it.

“My agent said selling that book was the major triumph of her career,” says Johnson, 42, an impeccably polite man, who took 10 minutes to answer a stranger’s question about writing workshops, while other fans at a recent Los Angeles book-signing affair fidgeted restlessly.

Johnson was in town to talk about his latest book, “Middle Passage,” an offbeat sea tale about a 19th-Century slave ship rebellion, and about some of the extra-literary stereotyping he has met with in his career as a novelist. When he’s not writing, he teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and he lives in Seattle.

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Still far from being a household name despite three novels, a book of short stories, a book of literary criticism and 16 years of mostly raves, Johnson has garnered a lot of respect. He has established himself as a prime experimenter (“If there’s a rule in creative writing, I have to look at it real carefully,” he says) and a wordsmith, the kind of writer who might sketch a bumbling Karl Marx into a story or create a swamp crone who spouts philosophy as if she were a Yale doctoral candidate.

He’s “part of the wave of the future . . . one of a few who are going to the head of the class,” says critic Stanley Crouch.

Johnson wasn’t complaining about the indifference with which publishers met his second novel, just making a point about the powerful undertow that any black literary experimenter must swim against. “The publishers wanted a different kind of book from me,” says the writer, an unobtrusive man behind thick glasses and a dark suit, like an extra in a crowd scene.

Of course, things changed for all American writers in the early 1980s, he says. “There was a slump in the publishing industry,” recalls Johnson. “Suddenly, the kinds of books that were projected to sell less than 10,000 copies weren’t very popular. Publishers were going after the bestsellers.” Despite good reviews, “Oxherding Tale,” an updated slave narrative with Zen allusions, wasn’t the kind of book that you’d expect to climb the charts.

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But the Illinois-born novelist had to face another big obstacle--the notion that the African-American community somehow serves up its writers one at a time.

“First it was Richard Wright, then James Baldwin, right?” says Johnson, a longtime teacher who likes to add a little interrogatory fillip to the things he says, as if he’s leading the listener, point by point, through an exegesis. “The mantle was about to be passed on to Amiri Baraka when he decided that he didn’t want to have anything to do with the white world. There was a little valley then, and Toni Morrison came along.”

The idea is that there’s such a unity of experience among black people that one writer is enough to interpret it, while others are supposed to fall in as the top dog’s imitators. “It’s one writer speaking for 12 million people,” says Johnson.

Johnson passionately rejects the notion. His work has never fit into the categories that have defined recent black literature--like the “up-from-the-ghetto” novel--and he believes strongly in the variability of the black experience in America.

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“The attitude has always been since, God knows, the days of Frederick Douglass, that, instead of richness and diversity, we see one level of expression,” Johnson says. “But that’s changing, I think.”

Along with “the novel of black pathologies . . . rats, roaches and drugs,” he says, publishers and reviewers are at last recognizing black writers as diverse as David Bradley (“The Chaneyville Incident”), Clarence Major (“Emergency Exit”) and Al Young (“Snakes,” “Sitting Pretty”).

“Hundreds of stories could be written about black professionals, black people who are mayors of cities,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s latest novel tells of the voyage of the Republic, a 19th-Century slave ship. It’s written from the perspective of a freed slave, the well-read thief and stowaway Rutherford Calhoun. There are hurricanes, mutiny and a rebellion by members of a mystical tribe--who have been imprisoned in the hold along with a powerful African idol--as the ship’s Faustian captain, an American buccaneer named Ebenezer Falcon, leads the ship recklessly towards destruction.

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The writer uses the Republic’s voyage along the slave route to explore the philosophical underpinnings of slavery and the nature of a larger republic, another variegated construction that requires a lot of cooperation to stay afloat.

Calhoun ultimately concludes: “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 caldron of mongrels from all points of the compass--was all I could rightly call home , then aye: I was of it.”

There is some hair-raising description of a small ship in a storm (“And then it was full upon us: a sea hot with anger, running in ranges like the Andes or the Rockies . . . "), mostly based on research rather than on direct experience, Johnson says.

The closest Johnson ever came to taking a sea voyage was a ferry on Puget Sound. But he rejects the idea that, before you can be a novelist, you have to work as a merchant seaman, a lumberjack and a short-order cook to provide the raw material for fiction.

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“I do enough research on a book for a dissertation,” he says. For “Middle Passage” “I read all the sea stories--Apollonius of Rhodes, Homer, the Sinbad stories and, obviously, Melville, Conrad and London. I read all of the narratives of slaves who came over by the middle passage.”

Several reviewers have said that the book is in the tradition of Herman Melville, whom Johnson candidly acknowledges as one of his literary forebears--not because “Middle Passage” is a sea tale but because it is, like all of Johnson’s fiction, consciously philosophical.

“All the characters in ‘Middle Passage,’ in fact, sound as if they’re double majors in classics and philosophy,” said one generally laudatory review in The Times.

As the narrator alludes freely to Bishop Berkeley and Parmenides, Falcon, whom Johnson modeled on the ruthless and erudite 19th-Century explorer Sir Richard Burton, ranges wide on the subject of slavery, describing it as “the social correlate of a deeper ontic wound.”

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Johnson, who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the State University of New York at Stonybrook, is unapologetic about his characters’ philosophical inclinations. “I believe firmly in the philosophical novel,” he says.

Born the son of a night watchman in Evanston, Ill., Johnson grew up with the idea of becoming a cartoonist. He almost made it. By the time he was 17, he was selling cartoons to Ebony, Jet and the Chicago Tribune, and in 1970, he became the host for 52 episodes of a PBS series on cartooning called “Charlie’s Pad.”

But Johnson had an irrepressible literary bent that cartooning couldn’t satisfy. He wrote six “unpublishable” novels, he says, before attending Southern Illinois University, where he came under the sway of novelist John Gardner. The author of “Grendel” and “Sunlight Dialogues” got his youthful protege to discard formulaic writing and to explore philosophical issues.

“He instilled a spirit in students which suggested that, even though there were high-wire performances by previous writers that were really up there, you could do it too, if you were willing to work hard,” Johnson says.

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Johnson has taught at the University of Washington since 1976, pounding away tirelessly at egotistical tripe in some of his young charges. “I have a real problem with literature that’s full of interpretive cliches,” he says, using an analogy that reverts to his days as a draftsman. “When you paint the model’s hand, are you looking at the unique hand in front of you or are you drawing what you’ve seen hundreds of times in other drawings of hands?”

Johnson has studied the martial arts--kung fu and karate--since he was 19. He’s the co-administrator of Twin Tigers School in Seattle, where he and other instructors seek to emphasize, aside from chops and kicks, “respect for the forms.”

But martial arts belt rankings are an American obsession that are really unimportant, he says. “The main purpose of a belt is to hold up your pants,” Johnson laughs.

Belt coloration originally came from hard work, he says. “The harder you worked, the dirtier the belt got, until one day it was brown and finally it turned black,” Johnson says with a glint of amusement. “If you kept at it, the white threads started to show through again, which meant a return to innocence.”

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The emphasis on spiritual, rather than material, improvement is something Johnson tries to instill in his writing students. “Ultimately, the book is more important than the author,” he says. “As a writer, there are tremendous ego pressures on you.”

Johnson, an “off-again-on-again” Buddhist, meditates daily. “It has been said in the (Zen) literature that every meditation is holding a funeral for the ego,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Like a martial arts teacher or a Zen master, Johnson leads his writing students through a careful study of their predecessors. He demands that his students understand and work with traditional forms--fables, allegories, sea tales, slave narratives.

“We didn’t get here except by standing on the shoulders of others,” he says.

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