Much as I hate to, I’m going to start by talking about the damn money. I’m only doing it because almost everyone else is.
It’s not just the author profiles and publishing-trade columns, but seemingly every other review of The Emperor of Ocean Park that mentions, way before stuff like plot or characters, the $4.2 million Knopf paid Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter for this first novel and another to come. Most, if not all, of these pieces seem incredulous that an academic-of-color could reap the kind of dough-re-mi for thriller writing that the John Grishams and Tom Clancys could command. Pundits of both colors–or of what Carter’s novel continually refers to as “the darker nation” and “the paler nation”–sound pleasantly surprised that an African-American male could earn some pop-cultural buzz by being paid millions of dollars for doing something that doesn’t require a ball or a microphone.
I’m guessing Carter has the grace to be appreciative about all this. But I’m also guessing that the author of Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby is equipped with inner radar delicate enough to pick up faint signals of condescension (or worse) beneath all this hype. Sifting through the reviews so far, especially those taking Carter to the woodshed, one detects glimmers of doubt as to whether the book or the author deserves all that money and attention. No matter that Carter, Yale Law’s first tenured African-American professor, has established his credentials as a legal scholar and public intellectual, having published seven nonfiction books whose subjects include values (Integrity, Civility), faith in public life (The Culture of Disbelief, God’s Name in Vain) and, of course, race (Reflections…). Black people have been through enough job interviews to recognize the skeptically arched eyebrows in key precincts of Book-Chat Nation over Carter’s big score. The eyebrows ask: Is the book worth all this fuss–and all that damn money?
The short answer is yes, though we’ll get to the longer, more complicated answer in a few clicks. First I want to address the other recurring motif in the reviews so far: a belief that the novel’s primary value–if not the only legitimate reason for all that money–comes in the way it foregrounds privileged reaches of African-American society. As if Dorothy West, John A. Williams, Nella Larsen, George S. Schuyler, John Oliver Killens, Charles W. Chesnutt, Lawrence Otis Graham and E. Franklin Frazier, the Veblen-esque sociologist-satirist who wrote Black Bourgeoisie, had never been born, much less ever bothered writing books. To these weary eyes, such incredulity over class issues reflects nothing more than the same-as-it-ever-was manner in which novels by African-Americans are waved toward the sociocultural checkpoint before they can compete for artistic consideration. And since it’s being marketed as a legal thriller/whodunit, The Emperor of Ocean Park has the added burden of being stigmatized as a genre piece. Hence the carping in some reviews over Emperor, whose closing kickers spring merrily like tripwires.
Hello. It’s melodrama. There are a lot of smart people who agree with Raymond Chandler, who confessed to a friend in 1945 that he chose to write melodrama “because when I looked around me it was the only kind of writing that was relatively honest.” Also as Chandler and other smart people drawn to genre have repeatedly proved, it’s possible to hang lyricism, social observation, even political ideas on melodrama’s broad shoulders so long as you don’t forget to play by the rules of the genre. One more thing: Melodrama, when played at top speed, often can be transformed into something very close to satire or, at least, sophisticated farce.
The Emperor of Ocean Park doesn’t move quite fast enough for that, which may be its biggest problem. Still, it is sophisticated entertainment; witty, elegantly written (way better than Grisham or Clancy, OK?), conceptually outrageous in a genteel way and flush with conflicting ideas unleashed in the stick-and-move fashion of a freewheeling sparring match. The surprise isn’t that Carter can write fiction. It’s his showmanship in mixing up the car chases, chess strategies, red herrings and gun battles with such dark, rueful observations as this:
I suddenly understand the passion of the many black nationalists of the sixties who opposed affirmative action, warning that it would strip the community of the best among its potential leaders, sending them off to the most prestigious colleges, and turning them into… well, into young corporate apparatchiks in Brooks Brothers suits, desperate for the favor of powerful white capitalists…. And the nationalists were right. I am the few. My wife is the few. My sister is the few. My students are the few. These kids pressing business cards on my brother-in-law are the few. And the world is such a bright, angry red…. I stand very still, letting the redness wash over me, wallowing in it the way a man who has nearly died of thirst might wallow in the shower, absorbing it through every pore, feeling the very cells of my body swell with it, and sensing a near-electric charge in the air, a portent, a symbol of a coming storm, and reliving and reviling in this frozen, furious instant every apple I have ever polished for everybody white who could help me get ahead.
This passionately skeptical, somewhat self-loathing voice belongs to Talcott Garland, who also answers to the names “Tal” and “Misha.” (This multiplicity of names is one of the little jokes that Carter threatens to run into the ground.) A law professor at an unnamed Ivy League university, Talcott is one of four children of Oliver Garland, a conservative judge appointed by Nixon to the US Court of Appeals, who might have served on the Supreme Court if his nomination hadn’t been derailed because he was seen hanging around the federal courthouse with a college roommate named Jack Ziegler, a former CIA agent and a sinister presence skulking in the dark alleys of American power.
As the novel begins, Tal’s father, whom Time once dubbed the “emperor of Ocean Park” because of his family’s impressive digs in the Oak Bluffs section of Martha’s Vineyard, has been found dead in his study. Tal is, at best, indulgent to older sister Mariah’s suspicions that their father met with foul play. Still, Tal suspects something’s afoot when, at the judge’s funeral, Ziegler pulls him aside to ask the whereabouts of some “arrangements” that the judge stashed away somewhere. Knowing “Uncle Jack” all too well, Tal suspects that these “arrangements” don’t exactly fall into customary categories of post-mortem details. By the time bogus FBI agents try to scare him into telling what little he knows and the Episcopal priest who conducts the funeral is tortured and murdered, Tal’s paranoia has kicked into third gear.
All of which Tal needs like root canal. Things are rough at the law school with various and sundry colleagues intruding their personal dramas onto his own. One of them, it turns out, is in competition with Tal’s stunning wife, Kimmer, short for “Kimberly,” for potential appointment to a federal judgeship. Kimmer frets and fusses about the appointment, oblivious to her husband’s concerns for their safety from whatever or whoever is stalking them. She barely notices the shadow stalkers, traveling long distances from home to make rain for her high-toned law firm. Tal suspects Kimmer is having an affair, but can barely keep her close by long enough to probe for concrete evidence. He concedes being flummoxed in general by the nature of women, seeking respite from such mysteries in “the simple rejuvenating pleasure of chess.” Indeed, the conundrums of chess, a game where, as in life, white always gets the first move over black, play a metaphoric role in the mystery, complete with missing pawns from the judge’s own set and a strategic gambit labeled “Excelsior.”
A few words about Tal: He’s the hero of the story, but he’s not an easy man to admire. Readers so far think he’s at best an unjustly beleaguered nerd or at worst an embittered brat, as self-absorbed as the mercenary students, career women and secular humanists he slaps with his words. He behaves badly at times, never more so than in a memorably chilling set piece in which he bullies and humiliates one of his students, “an unfortunate young man whose sin is to inform us all that the cases I expect my students to master are irrelevant, because the rich guys always win…. His elbow is on the chair, his other fist is tucked under his chin, and I read in his posture insolence, challenge, perhaps even the unsubtle racism of the supposedly liberal white student who cannot quite bring himself to believe that his black professor could know more than he…. I catch myself thinking, I could break him.” And he does, adding to the rapidly expanding ledger tabulating his self-disgust.
On the other hand, he loves his young son Bentley in a way that frightens him, especially when he visualizes a future in which Kimmer drifts out of his life with son in tow. He volunteers in a soup kitchen, partly as penance for his transgressions, partly to turn down the noises his own inner radar makes and submit to Christian values. He also yearns for a grounded sense of family, though relations with his aforementioned sister are strained and his brother Addison–the one Tal believes Dad liked best–is a commitment-phobic radio personality who keeps slipping from sight to avoid close scrutiny. (He has his reasons.) And there was a younger sister, Abby, something of a family renegade, who died in a car accident. “When Abby died,” Tal recalls, “my father went a little nuts, and then he got better.” It’s the book’s most pithy line. Don’t, for a minute, forget it.
Carter is very good at evoking the wonderlands of American life, whether the Vineyard, Aspen or Washington’s “Gold Coast” enclave of wealthy, powerful African-Americans. He’s even better at describing the machinations and intrigue in law school faculty offices–which shouldn’t be a surprise, though Carter’s extended disclaimer (pages 655-57) begs readers not to confuse Tal’s spiky, tempestuous professional life with his own. Still, from what readers know of Carter’s ideas about religion, ethics, politics and manners, it’s not too much of a stretch to see Tal asserting his creator’s right to probe, confound and, whenever possible, shatter conventional ideological boundaries.
At one point, Tal has a reverie about one of his father’s standard speeches to white conservatives, pointing to the overlap of their opinions on such issues as school vouchers, abortion and gay rights with those of the African-American mainstream. “Conservatives are the last people who can afford to be racist. Because the future of conservatism is black America!” Quickly, Tal’s mind makes a countermove. “Because there were a few little details the Judge always left out. Like the fact that it was conservatives who fought against just about every civil rights law ever proposed. Like the fact that many of the wealthy men who paid for his expensive speeches would not have him in their clubs…. The Judge was surely right to insist that the time has come for black Americans to stop trusting white liberals, who are far more comfortable telling us what we need than asking us what we want, but he never did come up with a particularly persuasive reason for us to start trusting white conservatives instead.”
For fans of the well-made thriller, these and other digressions may seem like patches of glue. But for those who think the plot is, as with the rest of the book, somewhat overstuffed with data, false leads, sudden frowns and black-and-blue contrivances, Tal’s asides come across like flares of random, cheeky insight. As the quote above suggests, neither left nor right is spared Tal’s withering assessment, though if I were keeping score, the liberal humanists get it in the teeth far more than those with more spirit-based devotions explaining their identities.
Readers have become accustomed to books written by African-Americans to come down hard on a sociopolitical point. Mystery lovers want airtight solutions. The Emperor of Ocean Park fulfills neither expectation. And that, as much as anything, earns both its money and its respect. Novels of ideas, in whose company Emperor surely belongs if I read my Mary McCarthy right, are supposed to be exactly that: About many ideas and not just one. Someone, maybe the author of Anna Karenina, once suggested that fiction should rouse questions, not answer them. Once again, the defense calls Raymond Chandler to the stand: “It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones, which the public does not seek or demand or in effect recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes.”
The Emperor of Ocean Park is no Farewell, My Lovely. But Carter is on to something. And he may someday deliver what Chandler does, along with a hearty serving of something non-Chandler-esque. What that something may be is hinted in a few lines close to the novel’s very end:
“That truth, even moral truth, exists I have no doubt, for I am no relativist; but we weak, fallen humans will never perceive it except imperfectly, a faintly glowing presence toward which we creep through the mists of reason, tradition, and faith.”
Your move, Tom Clancy.