What Are They Reading?
THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK.
By Stephen L. Carter.
Knopf. 657 pp. $26.95.
This book was obviously not written for me: a thriller about rich black people by a black critic of affirmative action and Yale Law school professor who has penned nonfiction books in favor of "civility" and restoring religion in American civic life. Moreover, a thriller for which the author was paid $4 million--programmed to be a bestseller.
But I read the first page in a bookstore, wanted to read more, bought the book, and spent the next week completely absorbed by The Emperor of Ocean Park. Stephen Carter's protagonist-narrator, Talcott Garland, is a black law professor at an Ivy League school who is immensely sympathetic--definitely not a black conservative like, say, Clarence Thomas or Thomas Sowell. The black right-wing activist in the book is actually Talcott's father, a judge who had been denied a seat on the Supreme Court after being humiliated in confirmation hearings by evidence that he had ties to a mob boss. As the book opens, the father has just died, and the plot centers on Talcott's quest to discover his father's secrets. The impetus comes from menacing strangers demanding to know "the arrangements" Talcott's father had made before his death.
The book includes rich portraits of extended family in the African-American upper-crust, descriptions of work in an elite law school and revelations of the subtle racial insults that even a black law professor endures regularly. And the clues left behind by the difficult father for the struggling son seem to refer to a nineteenth-century chess problem, which itself turns out to be a fascinating subplot. At the end, Carter's immensely satisfying solution combines the personal with the political and ultimately resolves Talcott's struggle with his father.
Stephen Carter is at work on a second novel; he says some of the characters from this one will reappear. I can hardly wait.