"The Emperor of Ocean Park" by Stephen L. Carter

The million-dollar novel just picked by the "Today" show book club melds a fascinating portrait of the black upper class to a less than thrilling thriller plot.


Suzy Hansen
June 24, 2002 9:33PM (UTC)

It's old news that Knopf paid Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and author of seven works of nonfiction, a whopping $4.2 million for his first novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park," and the promise of a follow-up. The new news is that the novel was just picked as the first selection for the new "Today" show book club, sending the publisher back to press for another 250,000 copies, for a total of 500,000 in print.

Some critics have wondered why. The book is too long, too convoluted, too hokey, they say. And while "The Emperor of Ocean Park," an often confoundingly twisted murder-mystery thriller, has many irritating flaws, in the end, it's not surprising why it's gotten so much hype. It's a Grisham-like legal thriller written by a star academic and public intellectual. Even more appealing, as Carter explains, this legal thriller takes place in a "larger slice of financially comfortable African America than most white Americans probably think exists outside the sports and entertainment world."

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He's probably right. Most Americans, unless they've read Lawrence Otis Graham's "Our Kind of People" or have friends who were in Jack and Jill, probably aren't familiar with the "Gold Coast" of Washington, D.C., or the old-money black enclaves on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Carter has anything astonishing to say about the black elite. The superficial, glossy ways of Carter's black bourgeoisie -- their upgrading of BMWs, their throwing of strategic dinner parties, their snubbing of everyone else -- isn't anything we don't already know about rich people, whatever their color. But Carter's portrayal of the interior life of black movers and shakers as they navigate between members of the "darker nation" and those of the "paler nation" at cocktail parties, in the halls of academe and on the street, does generate a sense of freshness, of seeing something new. Carter's social novel, the one lurking in the background of "The Emperor of Ocean Park" and popping up between the car chases, is what makes the pages turn.

At the center of this high society is the Garland family, sprawling and accomplished as any other wealthy, Ivy League-educated brood. For years, the Garlands summered on Martha's Vineyard. Oak Bluffs is on the other side of the island from "Kennedy country, the land where rich white vacationers and their bratty children congregate." The Garlands and their equally bratty children -- Addison, now a self-involved, philandering radio personality, Mariah, a former New York Times journalist who married a white investment banker, and Talcott, an Ivy League law professor -- once enjoyed warm memories of Oak Bluffs even though their parents would bemoan the influx of black vacationers noisier and less well-off than themselves. That was before the Garlands lost their fourth child, the rebellious Abby, who, before she was killed in a car accident on Martha's Vineyard, carried around a stuffed panda named after the black militant George Jackson.

When the book begins, the head of the family, Oliver "The Emperor" Garland (the nickname was bestowed upon him by a Time magazine article), has been found dead. Mariah suspects that he's been murdered, as do a gaggle of Internet conspiracy theorists. The Emperor, a notorious conservative federal judge who Reagan nominated for the Supreme Court, suffered a spectacular, well-televised fall from grace, apparently because he cavorted with one Jack Ziegler. (We have the Emperor's friendship with Uncle Jack to thank for the subsequent appointment of Antonin Scalia.) Ziegler, a shadowy underworld figure, is most memorable in "The Emperor of Ocean Park" for his corny, imitation-gangster lines such as: "'I have asked my question. I have delivered my warning. I have done what I came to do.'" (Carter's one-liners and cliffhanger chapter endings are often laughably melodramatic.) When he shows up at Garland's funeral, cryptically demanding Oliver Garland's "arrangements," Carter's thriller starts to unfold.

Meanwhile, Talcott's unfaithful, selfish wife, Kimberly -- Carter calls her by her prep-school nickname "Kimmer" -- is up for a nomination for a federal court of appeals. Her main competition is Mark Hadley, Talcott's colleague at the law school, where petty academic infighting threatens both Talcott's career and that of his wife.

So far, not so complicated, and Carter keeps things moving at a brisk pace. But there's still a good 400 pages of plot twists to go, ones that seem to multiply exponentially every few pages.

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Not surprisingly, Ziegler isn't the only one after the "arrangements." FBI agents follow Talcott's every move. A drug-addicted minister is brutally murdered. Chess pieces -- one white, one black -- disappear from the Emperor's study (this subplot and metaphor is pretty cool). Beachfront homes are burglarized. A shakily written note appears mentioning "Angela's boyfriend," a seemingly significant clue, though we've never even heard of Angela before. Bloodied dog tags are thrown in for good measure. Other people start following Talcott. Kimmer keeps cheating on him.

The drippy Talcott finds himself in considerable danger, but like any good son or thriller protagonist, he's hellbent on solving the case. Fortunately, Talcott, despite said drippiness, is also the vehicle for Carter's best moments. When he observes the "paler nation," Talcott suffers a reflexive physical reaction: "My vision is suddenly overlaid with bright splotches of red, a thing that happens from time to time when my connection to the darker nation and its oppression is most powerfully stimulated." It happens when he's talking to colleagues and while he's teaching: "I glare at the cocky student and see, for a horrible moment, the future, or maybe just the enemy: young, white, confident, foolish, skinny, sullen, multiply pierced, bejeweled, dressed in grunge, cornsilk hair in a ponytail, utterly the cynical conformist, although he thinks he is an iconoclast ... 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."

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He's critical of his own prejudices, too; sometimes the civil rights era and the Gilded Age clash with bristling dark humor: "I suddenly understand the passion of 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 even when Carter's preachy, it's not boring: "that is the level to which the darker nation had been reduced: being unable to influence the course of a single event in white America, we waste our precious time and intellectual energy maligning each other, as though we best serve the cause of racial progress by kicking other black folks around."

Yet Carter's protagonist, for all his smart commentary on Ivy League dynamics, the law, religion, affirmative action, insolent whites and black conservatism, is encumbered by his own self-loathing. To Talcott, everyone around him is more beautiful, more charismatic, more brilliant, more accomplished, more comfortable at those stupid cocktail parties. Here's Talcott on his brother: "Addison has wit and style and grace, none of which I possess." Talcott on his colleague, Lemaster Carlyle: "He stands miles above me in the school's unwritten hierarchy, and is adored by everybody in the building, and most alumni as well, for he is also a nearly perfect politician ... His perfect wife, Julia, is as small and dark and cute as Lemaster himself." Kimmer is always sexy, even when she's treating him like shit. She's "stunning as ever," even in a bathrobe.

Ostensibly, Carter's trying to pit his hero against the world and make Talcott's struggle seem truly impossible. But not only does Carter convince us that Talcott's rather lame, the rest of the characters seem directly drawn from the superlatives page of some boarding school yearbook. Rather than drawing out their complexity, Carter presents the sum of their achievements. Imagine all these enormous egos trying to have a conversation; often the dialogue drags.

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But there's something subtly poignant about what Carter's going for, though he doesn't allude to that pain directly until well into the novel. As if assessing the society he's thus far created, he declares, "The social scene, so inexplicably wasteful and pretentious to its critics, refreshed and reinforced those who whirled through it, strengthening them to face another day, another week, another month, another year of expending their prodigious talents in a nation unprepared to reward them for their abilities." "The Emperor of Ocean Park" reeks of this exhaustion.

And somehow, in this atmosphere, you understand the Emperor, and why he, or Carter, forced all these characters to figure out what the hell he did and what the hell was wrong with him. He was a prominent man who failed, because he tried too hard, because he was flawed, because he was paranoid, because people resented him. Or, maybe, he failed because he was a man trying to protect his family in a world that he didn't trust. Even the great Oliver Garland was haunted by the rules of chess, where the player with the white pieces always gets to move first. In the end, his money, power and position as beacon of the law couldn't get him justice -- the real, personal kind of justice that actually matters.

It's possible that Stephen Carter tried too hard trying to squeeze in all his pet subjects and devise a smart, intricate thriller. It's too bad. The secrets of a dead, rich, powerful black conservative, embroiled in D.C. politics and harrowed by family tragedy, make for a story that's compelling enough on its own.

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Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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