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December 12, 2013
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'Emperor of Ocean Park' by Stephen L. Carter
Author’s first novel filled with insights into politics, academia and the racial divide
Sunday, July 28, 2002
By Sherri Hallgren
Stephen L. Carter’s debut novel is one of those books so talked-about that it’s difficult to find the book under all the hype. Carter, a Yale law professor, is well known for his nonfiction works, which include “Reflections of an Affirmative-Action Baby,” “The Culture of Disbelief,” and “God’s Name in Vain: the Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics.” The titles alone suggest his ability to take on both the right and the left.
When Carter writes a novel and sells it for a record seven-figure advance, it makes news beyond simple literary evaluation.
To get back to the book itself, it’s set in the world where Washington politics and Ivy League law schools converge and proves to be absorbing and satisfying. Combining character study with elements of mystery thrillers, it is more thoughtful than a beach book and more gripping than most literary fiction.
The central character is Talcott Garland, a bristly law professor at a school very much like Yale. Although highly visible as one of a handful of African-Americans on the faculty, he keeps a low profile, a family man who prefers playing chess to making headlines.
When the book opens, his quiet life is quickly capsizing. His father, the title character of the book (Ocean Park is a black enclave on Martha’s Vineyard), has just died; his wife may be having another affair; the FBI men who interviewed him are, according to the FBI, impostors; and now his sister is insisting that their father’s death was no simple heart attack.
And as if all that weren’t enough, immediately after the funeral, Talcott is accosted at the gravesite by “Uncle Jack” Ziegler, his father’s college roommate, who was later a CIA agent with powerful ties to the underworld.
Ziegler demands that he tell him about his father’s “arrangements,” promising his family won’t be hurt, but unfortunately, Talcott hasn’t a clue what Ziegler is talking about.
This is enough to shake an ordinary family, but the Garlands are far from that. Talcott’s father was nominated by President Reagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, but then withdrew his name midway through the confirmation hearings when scandal erupted over his continued friendship with “Uncle Jack.”
His superstar lawyer wife has just been nominated to a federal court seat and is the subject of a background investigation of her own.
His brother is host of a New Age, liberal radio talk-show. And his sister, now a suburban super-mom, is a former investigative journalist who won’t let go of her conspiracy theory.
Add wealth, influence and a bit of racial politics to these agendas, and you have a brilliant setting for drama. Not to mention a good share of family secrets, which Talcott sets about discovering.
Soon he’s being followed by several sets of people with varying degrees of menace, and the tension mounts. Pressed by the shadowy Ziegler to uncover the “arrangements” and pressed by his wife to quit causing trouble while she is being investigated for the prospective judgeship, Talcott is a man obsessed, harassed, depressed.
Enmeshed in family mysteries, he seems unable to make any headway in solving them, even though he is, several sources tell him, the only one who can. He is a reluctant detective, and much of the success or the failure of the novel will depend upon whether or not readers are willing to stick with him.
While Carter’s deft plotting propels the novel forward, its pace is often slowed by Talcott, who as narrator controls the flow of information, moralizing, overexplaining, editorializing about everything from politics to lobster rolls to the sanctity of marriage.
But while relentlessly observant, Talcott shows a frustrating lack of curiosity, and he’s often a step behind the reader in asking questions and seeing connections.
Judged as a mystery only, the novel is too long and the denouement rather contrived. But it is a fascinating illumination of rarefied, closed and secretive worlds: The faculty politics of a top law school, the surreal process by which we pick judges and especially how what Talcott calls “the darker nation” perceives “the paler nation.”
With their own wealth, influence, and networks, this segment of the black upper middle class moves within the dominant white world while maintaining its own set of exclusive neighborhoods and connections.
In this ultimately compelling character study, Stephen L. Carter manages to explore a segment of our society rarely portrayed in the media, while turning Talcott Garland into a sympathetic Everyman.
Sherri Hallgren is former director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the MFA program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College, Calif.
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