By Charles Johnson

Atheneum. 209 pp. $17.95

CHARLES JOHNSON's third novel, Middle Passage, is a curious romp through 19th-century America. Written in the form of a ship's log, the novel recounts the misadventures of Rutherford Calhoun, a former slave, a thief and ne'er-do-well from southern Illinois who journeys to New Orleans after having been manumitted by his master -- only to find himself ensnared by the unattractive Isadora Bailey, who is eager for marriage, and by bad debts and petty crimes that have caught up with him. He escapes by stowing away on the Republic, a barely sea-worthy vessel captained by Ebenezer Falcon who has fallen out of favor with his crew of misfits. The ship turns out to be a slaver en route to Bangalang in West Africa where the Allmuseri (a pun on "all misery") people will be the principal cargo.

Although he fails to react to his predicament with sufficient horror or any feeling whatsoever (indeed, he knows the ship's mission before he slips aboard), Calhoun, who belongs to the literary type of the amoral rogue, becomes a pawn in the dispute between crew and captain and, worse, an accomplice to the slave trade. Calhoun's awareness of this dilemma offers neither tragic insight nor the comic relief one expects from good satire. Before the planned mutiny can erupt, the enslaved Africans stage their own successful rebellion and gain control of the ship.

Middle Passage reflects the same fascination with history and narrative as Johnson's previous novels, Faith and the Good Thing and Oxherding Tale. Oxherding Tale plays upon the slave narrative and demands the manumission of readers and writers alike from the constraints of the first-person viewpoint. That novel begins with a single joke: Master and slave in a drunken revel decide to swap wives. Andrew Hawkins, born from this confusion, is raised a slave until he escapes bondage. Middle Passage ventures into this same period of history and play but fares less well. Here, the single joke (former slave stowaway on a slaveship) does not support the novel's plot. The novel remains unsure of its tone and direction, falling short of seriousness or high comedy. It lacks the brilliant, sustained, outrageous humor of Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada or the compelling seriousness of Sherley Ann William's Dessa Rose. And for all of Johnson's inclusion of references to Kant and Thomist theology (Calhoun was raised in such an intellectual household, you see), he never broadens our understanding of the elusive past and its presence in contemporary letters the way, say, Toni Morrison's Beloved demands a total re-reading of history. MANY African-American novelists in recent years have wrestled with the past and the power of historical imagination. They have loosened the stranglehold of popular stereotypes and, at the same time, have poked good-natured fun at history's uncanny ability to repeat itself. Johnson's Middle Passage is part of a larger quest to save us from our self-induced cultural amnesia by recovering a lost history and examining its impact on us today. Yet Johnson relies on so many received texts and situations that he loses his own. Scenes that recall Melville's Moby-Dick abound, and Johnson even borrows characters such as Babo, Atufal and Delano from Melville's classic tale "Benito Cereno." The situation of reverse navigation (towards Africa by day, America by night) draws from period accounts of Cinque's rebellion aboard the Amistad.

These elements of 19th-century American fiction and history are all present in Middle Passage but without the necessary critique and playfulness usually present in satire or parody. Johnson's language ranges from the anachronistic cliche ("What's a nice girl like her doing in a city like this?") to near eloquence: "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 kind 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 Old." Yet Johnson hasn't brought us closer to Rutherford Calhoun because the protagonist himself takes nothing seriously enough to sustain the reader's empathy with his unwieldy predicament or to share his absurd delight in confronting such an unruly past. Melvin Dixon's most recent book is the novel "Trouble the Water."