- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002


By Stephen L. Carter

Knopf, $26.95, 657 pages


During the last 10 or so years, Stephen L. Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, and a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, has published seven books of didactic nonfiction as well as numerous professional articles and essays. In each of his books he focuses on a particular facet of life in our democracy, one that he believes needs reconsideration, if not correction.

Mr. Carters best known book is "Reflection of an Affirmative Action Baby" in which he takes the controversial position of an African-American who, though ready to grant that some aspects of his very successful career owe a debt to Affirmative Action, presents a reasonable argument against the program, a stance he surely knew would raise angry voices with in the black community and the political left. The author seems to bask in swimming against the tide, setting out to debunk the myth of the black intellectual as "automatically" a liberal democrat.

Mr. Carters liberal credentials are well known, and remain unaffected either by his provocative books or by his admission that he "is where I like to be: difficult to pin down, hard to label." Who doesnt; but it is always possible that such amorphousness is simply a game or, worse, an excuse for flip-flopping, something that no one could accuse Mr. Carter of, certainly not in his nonfiction.

Now, Mr. Carter makes his debut as a novelist. If his publishers pre-publication publicity packet proves prescient, "The Emperor of Ocean Park" will be this years "big" book. After all, Knopf (and Vintage for paperback rights) spent four million dollars in a spirited auction for it and a second novel, and film rights were optioned for another million. The Book-of-the-Month Club has named it a main selection, and Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, Mystery Guild, and Black Expressions have made it an alternate selection.

What more could the author of a first novel want. The stars seem aligned to assure Mr. Carter several months on bestseller lists, readings and book signings at the usual bookstores, appearances on day and nighttime talk shows, and the cover if not of Rolling Stone, then at least of Vanity Fair.

It would be nice to say, if only because first novels deserve some slack, that "The Emperor of Ocean Park" warrants the hoopla clearly expected by its publisher. This would be a happy occasion if I could say that, like last years commercial and critical success, Jonathan Franzens "The Corrections," Mr. Carters novel is a good read and a literary accomplishment. Sadly, the book is neither.

The central plot, the one that begets a hoard of subplots, is quite simple: A powerful though disgraced Judge, Oliver Garland, is found dead under what some, especially his already paranoid daughter, consider mysterious circumstances. The Judges son, Talcott — the names of many characters give off the whiff of a mildewing postmodern strategy — learns of certain "arrangements" his father made, and is subjected to threats from various sources.

Ever the dutiful son attempting to escape his fathers shadow, Talcott sets off on a slow, at times agonizingly slow, quest for the "truth." What unfolds is rarely shocking, seldom unexpected. People are murdered, tortured, "disappeared"; conspiracies abound, renegade agents and their former employers pop in and out of chapter like characters in a sit com, and madness is just around any corner. All of which is par for the course for disposable summer mysteries and thrillers.

Mr. Carter, however, wants us to take such stock situations seriously. He even involves the reader in "the world of the chess problemist, where composers work for months or years to set up challenging positions for others to solve," a clever structural tactic that might be more successful if not often obfuscated by overwriting. (In an interview circulated by Knopf, Mr. Carter tells us that "the fact the number of chapters in the book is the number of squares on a chessboard is a coincidence." He also adds an "Authors Note" after the end of the book to tell readers how not to read the novel, and to downplay some glaringly autobiographical "coincidences." Perhaps the good professor doth protest too much.)

What then is this novel. Is it an insiders expose of the legal profession and law schools? Well, yes, it is that, and quite a funny one at times. Is it a satire of the black upper-middle, lower-upper classes? Certainly, the novel is that, at its best. Is it a bully pulpit from which Professor Carter can lecture on the decline of America and offer his cure? Yes, too often it is that.

Take Talcott Garland. He is a nerd; a smug, pompous, arrogant, hypocritical intellectual who bears all the markings of an unreliable narrator, one who wants to be believable. He wants to be loved, but few other characters like him, and he admits he is not a friendly person. We know he is a liar because he tells us so, and we catch him repeatedly lying. Hes an adulterer who cuckolded his wifes first husband only to wear the horns himself. He is sentimental to the point of bathos, daring to tell us how his "heart sobs." Basically slow footed, he is forced to dissect his dysfunctional family, and to plod his way through confusing clues to a shaky conclusion.

Several interesting secondary characters, including Talcotts promiscuous wife Kimmer, "Uncle" Jack Ziegler, a frail but sinister global manipulator, and Father Freeman Bishop, whose role, though small, is important, help to keep the plot creeping along. Talcott Garland, however, remains his creators odd mouthpiece. Pages pass with little or no plot development while we read Talcotts view of a world he divides into "the darker nation" and "the paler nation," with most of the villains coming from the latter.

What most disappoints about Mr. Carters novel is its language. Dialogue is often stilted and thin, and description too heavily indebted to cliche. Consider Talcott on why he sees, yes, red no less: " … vision is suddenly overlaid with bright splotches of red, a thing that happen from time to time when my connection to the darker race and its oppression is most painfully stimulated." Is it possible that Mr. Carter, whose nonfiction reveals a solid understanding of language and its uses, deliberately wrote this way for some aesthetic or commercial reason, or that his editor misplaced the old blue pencil? If the above was an isolated example of bad writing, fine, but similar passages occur too often to be forgiven."The Emperor of Ocean Park" fails because it is so overworked that it is confused about what it wants to be. The bloated, unwieldy structure, clever one time, silly the next, and the formulaic writing distract the reader by masking Mr. Carters serious talent, which one hopes will be obvious in his next novel.

It is not surprising that the reader who gets to the final pages will realize it is Judge Garland himself who, albeit dead, is the most interesting character. His power reaches from the grave as his "arrangements" manipulate his family. He is a tragic figure, more Ahab than Brutus Jones in Eugene ONeills great play. He might remind some readers of Pierce Inverarity in Thomas Pynchons "The Crying of Lot 49," whose will sends Oedipa Maas on her quest, and whose shadow, like the Judges on Talcott, falls on and colors everything she sees and does.

Pierce might have played a sadistic joke on his former lover, and Oliver Garlands "arrangements" certainly determine his sons behavior, but whereas Oedipa comes to learn about herself and America, it is questionable that Talcott learns anything. At the very least, he gets to see what Wallace Stevens, another Connecticut lawyer, knew when he wrote that "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream."

Vincent Balitas is a poet, teacher, and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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