Book Review

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

middling swashbuckling adventure

cw: depression, anhedonia, alcohol abuse, slavery

August 24th, no, 26th

I was out of town for a few days, nothing exciting.

Just southern England.

Don’t worry, donators, I wasn’t spending your hard earned money on frivolity and having a good time! It was a trip paid for by someone else. It wasn’t very exciting. It was basically a 4-day gentle bender, just booze, again, nothing exciting, but y’know, being with people too, like, repressed to say, “maybe you should be drinking a little bit less, scott?”

That’s one of the problems with cycling in and out of periods of heavy drinking, is that you’re able to drink a lot without ever being raucously drunk, so people don’t necessarily notice in the way they would… if you were crazy wasted. Like, not being wasted, even though you’re drinking a lot it’s, y’know, like, easier to pretend things are fine, right? Drinking 20 drinks in a day is definitely unhealthy, right? If anything, it’s a particular sign of poor health if you’re not visibly off your face after all that. But, hey, who am I to judge myself?

Who am I to judge myself?

I’m doing the voice to speech thing again, so who knows what this will look like when I go to edit it up later on but, I’m not, not, doing ok.

I’m not doing ok.

I’m gonna have to do something drastic like get a job or something. Just, y’know, at least when I was miserable in Toronto I was able to put some money away. Luckily I did that because of all the excess taxes that the Canadians keep emailing me demanding hahaha – I’ve got nothing left, bebbe!


Middle Passage is a novel from the early 90s set about 150 years earlier. It’s inelegantly written, though I think(?) intentionally so, as it’s a first person narrative told from – and written as if from the pen of – the perspective of a young (now freed) former enslaved person, a wise-cracking partyboy Black guy, who starts off the novel down in old New Orleans in the early 1830s. It’s written as this character describes himself speaking and interacting with the world – a raconteur, a story-spinner, a grifter, a charmer, an exaggerator, a liar (maybe?)

So, this guy, he’s a party animal who likes to have a good time and because he doesn’t really have a job and because he has no family connections as a former enslaved person who came south to party, basically, he’s in a lot of debt (aren’t we all? No, I know a lot of you aren’t.)

It turns out that all the people the hero owes money to all owe money in turn to one particular individual, a real bad guy. But, there’s a way out: the real bad guy gives the main character a proposition. He can marry a really beautiful – but very dull – woman who has a big crush on him and who the bad guy is in love with, but in a sort of fairytale “I’d rather see you happy with someone else than unhappy with me” kinda way. (Does that happen irl? If you’ve ever felt that, please let me and the rest of the readers know in the comment section below!)

The offer is that if the hero (Rutherford Calhoun) marries this sexy lady, he doesn’t have to owe anyone any money and his debts will be 100% cleared.

Buuuut, this young lad likes to party too much and doesn’t want to be tied down to a wife – he is not ready to be wived – so he steals the shipping papers (whatever that means) from some pissed up ship’s cook in a bar and then sneaks onto a ship as a stowaway, planning to claim to be the cook when he’s discovered the following morning. However, in the morning the original cook – despite being wankered in a pub the night before – is already there and cooking up breakfast for the whole crew.

Anyway, Middle Passage then turns into a swashbuckling adventure.

The ship is set to go and illegally buy slaves – I don’t quite understand why it’s illegal given that it’s before the American Civil War (ok, looked it up – it became illegal to import slaves from 1808 despite owning slaves being legal until 1865) – but this is a specific, targeted trip to pick up some particularly tough, strong and – yes – magical people who are being trafficked by some bad people on the African mainland. Oh, and the transaction also involves the kidnap of an ancient deity.

And, yeah, that’s the setup.

Middle Passage is only like 200 pages, which isn’t perhaps necessarily enough, right? Because it’s an action and world-building-packed story. Yes, though, it is a bit messy, but it’s from the perspective of a guy writing up his experiences as they happen – the novel is the ship’s log as written by Rutherford Calhoun once he becomes – wait, no spoilers – and the adventures that are happening to him mean that time spent writing is not necessarily with full concentration.

There’s cannibalism, mutiny, monsters, crimes, twists, surprises and the sea. Yeah, it’s alright, it’s OK, it’s definitely not bad, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

I was reading it while I was away. Bye is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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