Book Review: New England White: A Novel

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by Stephen L. Carter

Publication Date:
List Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover, 556 pages
Classification: Fiction
ISBN13: 9780375413629
Imprint: To Be Determined
Publisher: To Be Determined
Parent Company: To Be Determined
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Book Reviewed by Kam Williams

’I like writing [about] this world for the same reason that others like reading [about] it: the black upper class is a continuing fascination, and unlocking its secrets is rather fun...The world of the black elite remains largely unexplored in fiction.

Although there are notable and important exceptions, too many novels still seem to feature black ’stock’ characters, and even those meant to be positive -- the judges and prosecutors, the generals and surgeons ’ are often defined by the authors according to the humbleness of their beginnings, and the obstacles they have overcome.

The world is not, of course, the world of most black Americans, and I do not mean in any sense to suggest that the backgrounds of my major characters are typical. Yet, the upper middle class is home to far more African Americans than most Americans, white or black, seem to think.’
—The author on why he writes about the black elite

When Lawrence Otis Graham published Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class in 2000, many folks, for the first time, became aware of the existence of a long-established black elite in this country. Graham found himself ostensibly ostracized by fellow members of that snobbish set for not only having outed them by name, but for having shared such family secrets such as where they live and vacation, what exclusive organizations they belong to, and where they send their kids to school and summer camp.

While that encyclopedic expose’ was certainly an informative Who's Who, it failed to give you much of a feeling for the mindset of the black bourgeoisie. Fortunately, Stephen L. Carter first filled that void a few years later, when he wrote The Emperor of Ocean Park, a murder mystery which unfolded on Martha's Vineyard, one of the aforementioned oases frequented by the African-American aristocracy.

Carter, a Professor of Law at Yale University, is also the author of seven nonfiction books, including the very thought-provoking Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, The Culture of Disbelief, and God's Name in Vain.  With New England White, another whodunit among the copper-toned rich and famous, he has really hit his stride as a novelist, having excised the excess verbiage which some say marked The Emperor of Ocean Park.

That doesn't mean he won’t still occasionally slip in some SAT vocabulary (such as ’abstemiousness,’ ’sinecure,’ ’dandling,’ ’soteriology,’ and ’garrulous’) likely to have you reaching for the dictionary, but simply that this crime caper is definitely more of an absorbing page-turner. Of far more significance, however, is the plausible picture Professor Carter paints of the black upper class, a group which the mainstream culture has historically demeaned as boorish buffoons, from Kingfish ’Holy mackerel!’ Stevens to Judge Pigmeat ’Order in the court!’ Markham to George ’Movin’ on up!’ Jefferson to just about the entire cast of Soul Plane, a despicable movie about a mythical black airline company.

You won’t find any such insulting throwbacks in New England White, but rather sophisticated and intelligent collection of accomplished individuals. The tawdry tale takes place at an Ivy League school and revolves around administrators Julia and Lemaster Carlyle, a very powerful couple who were merely minor characters in The Emperor of Ocean Park .

Needless to say, the plot thickens early on, soon after the Carlyles stumble upon the body of an economics professor who just happens to be an ex-lover of Julia’s. I'll have to leave it here, since I would be doing my readers a disservice to divulge a word more of this delectable yarn best savored slowly over the summer. Suffice to say that New England White is heartily recommended, especially for avid fans of the mystery genre or for anyone curious about how that other half of African-Americana lives.


Related Links

The Emperor of Ocean Park Reviewed by Linda Watkins

The Emperor of Ocean Park Reviewed by Thumper


Stephen 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.
—Excerpted from B&

Read To Be Determined’s description of New England White: A Novel.