L. Carter The New York Times has called him one of the nation's
leading public intellectuals.
Born in Washington, D.C., Stephen L. Carter studied law at
Yale University and went on to serve as a law clerk for Supreme Court
Justice Thurgood Marshall.
In 1982 he joined the faculty at Yale. His critically
acclaimed nonfiction books on subjects including affirmative action, the
judicial confirmation process, and the place of religion in our legal and
political cultures have earned Carter fans among luminaries as diverse as
William F. Buckley, Anna Quindlen, and former President Bill Clinton.
Stephen L. Carter makes his debut as a fiction writer with The Emperor of
Ocean Park. This is a tale of political manipulation, a Supreme Court justice
confirmation hearing, and vengeance, all told through the point of view of a
black middle class family. The Emperor of Ocean Park is large in size (650+
pages) and in ambition. After I read it, I was stunned by its conclusion, the
fact that I finished the novel, and the realization that Stephen Carter may have
written the singular, most unique book of the year.
Talcott Garland (nicknamed Misha), a law professor, who is the father of
three year old Bentley, and unhappily married to Kimberly (a high-powered,
rising star lawyer) is the second son of the infamous, ultra -conservative,
failed Supreme Court justice nominee Oliver Garland -- a.k.a. the Judge. After
his death, the Judge leaves Misha instructions in the form of a cryptic chess
problem, which Misha must solve. If Misha isn't careful, the solution of the
puzzle could bring about his own death.
The Emperor of Ocean Park is an ambitious novel in its desire to be more than
a book of political intrigue and mystery. The novel has the flavors of Agatha
Christie's best Hercule Poirot/Miss Marple books, combined with the
legal-eagle- in-trouble suspense stories that are usually associated with
John Grisham and Scott Turow, and the social commentary and personal examination
of a Richard Wright novel. On a few fronts Carter succeeded, but on others he
failed, in that he did not capture the fundamental elements displayed by these
authors -- the most prominent being pacing. Simply put, the novel is too damn
big, and juggles too many balls.
With mystery and political intrigue/legal eagle novels, timing is everything.
A slowly paced, slow flowing mystery/suspense novel usually becomes, in my case,
an unfinished or a non-read mystery/suspense novel. Once the plot is
established, the lead character adequately introduced, and the prime objective
stated, it's time to get a move on unraveling the mystery and identifying the
culprit. It is NOT the time for the lead character to take a leisurely casual
Sunday stroll in the park of his subconscious, which is what Carter had Misha
do. A big mistake. While I'm anxious to get the show on the road and find out
what the Judge is up to, I am treated to histories of campus buildings and
towns, and the repeated musings of Misha conducting a prayer circle of one over
his dying marriage. I was neither hearing nor feeling it. By the time I reached
page 69, I started to throw the book from my bedroom, down the hall, and into my
study. I came very close to not finishing the novel.
Carter's use of Misha's law school and it's behind-the-curtain happenings as
a backdrop is actually quite good. When focused on this portion of the book, the
story is a little tighter and moves more freely. I also appreciated being
exposed to a dimension of the black middle class that isn't displayed in today's
contemporary AA literature. While a majority of novels that feature the black
middle class portray the characters as if they live in a bubble where America's
deeply embedded racism doesn't exist, Carter brought it out and placed it on
**WARNING -- Thumper's Soapbox Ahead**
I would say to Misha or the Judge when a racial situation presented itself,
"Now what, dawg? You did everything right, (or what you perceive as right),
capturing that slice of the American pie and YET some white folks had the
audacity to treat you like a nigga, huh? You got the education to show
them that you're intelligent. You got the clothes and house to show that you
got class, style, and table manners. You talk in quiet, comforting tones and
employ gestures that you perceive as non-threatening, all in an effort to show
"them" that not all of "us" are gang bangers, head knockers, welfare recipients,
and beggars. And still, the police see you as a suspect first and victim in the
fourth place. The expectation is firmly in place that you wear the
self-sacrificing Uncle Tom persona when it comes to promotions -- you know, for
the good of your fellow white co-worker. Now what, Mr. "I-summer-in-the-Hamptons"?
Let's see the American system work for you, since those of us who live in the
hood, see racism all around us and ain't afraid to call it, and in your opinion
get it all wrong." **Thumper is now getting off the Soapbox**
I did not like Misha. Ooh, he got on my nerves so bad! *screaming * It's hard
for me to read books that feature lead characters that I do not like and find
uninteresting. If the character is unlikable, he must be fascinating. It sounds
silly, but it is true. Misha is in the latter category to a point. All through
the book, I'm cussing and talking to Misha, "I wouldn't do that if I was you,
dawg" or "Why are you so DAMN WEAK?" Or "Why didn't you cuss that MF all the way
out? What is your problem?" I got and maintained the irresistible urge to yell
at Misha, "Oh
just get the hell out of the way and let me do this, damn". I must give
Carter props, for Misha is a reasonably well developed character. I have no
problem believing that Misha could exist-- and that he should keep his whining
self well away from me!
The conclusion of the novel was incredible. It's been a while since a
mystery's outcome caught me by surprise. The problem that I had with the
revelations of the final pieces of the puzzle was Misha's sudden ability and
wherewithal in solving it. For over 500 pages, Misha had not a clue, but in a
burst of deduction and ingenuity, he assembles everything in its rightful place,
knows who did what and why. Nope, I couldn't swallow that one.
I was stunned after reading The Emperor of Ocean Park. I'm still stunned. The
shock has only just begun to dissipate. The Emperor of Ocean Park, believe it or
not, is one book for which I don't have an overall conclusion as to whether it's
good or not. The novel attempts to combine elements that are not complimentary,
thus producing a large novel dotted with nice moments and a few well-constructed
scenes, but suffers from being long-winded.