The Chaneysville Incident, by David Bradley. New York: Avon Books. 450 pp. $3 .50.
At the center of this complicated, ambitious novel stands a formidably intelligent and forbidding character.
John Washington, a black, has raised himself up from his rural origins in western Pennsylvania to become a professor of history at a Philadelphia university, where he lives with Judith, a psychologist who is white.
Their combative emotional relationship is further strained when a call from home takes John back to a reunion with his origins, and a compulsion to solve mysteries that have burdened him for years.
The stories of an old man who had been both John's mentor and the devoted friend of his late father reawaken John's wish to learn more about the mysterious death, years earlier, of his solitary, tight-lipped father. There follows a complex tale covering several generations, including a slave riot, and climaxing in the ''incident'' named in the title.
John Washington's complaints about the limitations of history perfectly express the conviction that black people must by virtue of their experience and their suffering perceive the world differently than do whites.
For me, ''The Chaneysville Incident'' rivals Toni Morrison's ''Song of Solomon'' as the best novel about the black experience in America since Ellison's ''Invisible Man'' nearly 30 years ago.