Book Review: The Emperor of Ocean Park
Publication Date: May 27, 2003
List Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback, 672 pages
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann
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Book Reviewed by Thumper
Conservative Pundit’s Mystery Novel Only Partly Successful
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 center stage.
**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.
The Emperor of Ocean Park Reviewed by Linda Watkins
New England White by Stephen L. Carter Reviewed by Kam Williams