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The Emperor of Ocean Park


The Emperor of Ocean Park Cover



Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Stephen L. Carter's eagerly anticipated and hugely ambitious first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park.

When the brilliant and controversial black judge, Oliver Garland, is found dead in his study, not everyone believes it was a heart attack. Mystery, secrecy, and misfortune seemed to surround the judge during his life?his daughter was killed in a hit-and-run car accident and his nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected in a scandalous public hearing?and now that's he's dead the mysteries only deepen. He has left his son Talcott, professor of law at a prestigious New England university, a set of cryptic instructions regarding his "arrangements." Talcott's sister Mariah is certain that their father was murdered and produces one conspiracy theory after another to prove it; his wife, the beautiful, ambitious Kimmer, is up for her own Appeals Court nomination and wants Judge Garland and all his undying controversy to go away; Jack Ziegler, the menacing underworld figure whose friendship with the Judge cost him a position on the highest court, demands that Talcott deliver the "arrangements" to him. Caught in the middle, in a marriage that is unraveling, a university from which he feels increasingly alienated, and a family history from which it seems he cannot escape, Talcott begins the long and winding?and quite dangerous?task of unraveling his father's sins and secrets.

But The Emperor of Ocean Park is more than a thriller, thrilling as it undoubtedly is. Carter very skillfully weaves into his story an incisive critique of American culture, the complex interactions between law, religion, politics, wealth, race, and family in contemporary society. The result is a sprawling, smart, fast-paced novel that probes not just the mystery surrounding a father's death but also the larger puzzle of how to live a meaningful life at this particular moment in our history.

1. How does The Emperor of Ocean Park differ from more conventional mysteries? In what ways is the narrator, Talcott Garland, unlike his counterparts — men like Philip Marlow, Sam Spade, and their descendants — in the prototypical mystery?

2. How does Carter build and sustain suspense throughout the novel? What are the several mysteries Talcott Garland is trying to solve? What discoveries does he make?about his father, his wife, his brother, Jack Ziegler, Justice Wainwright, and others?over the course of the novel? What effect do these discoveries have on him?

3. The issue of race appears, in one form or another, throughout The Emperor of Ocean Park. What is Talcott's attitude toward race? In what instances is he subject to racial stereotyping? What observations does he make about the white liberal racism he encounters on campus? What racial hypocrisies does he see in his fellow blacks?

4. At the Judge's funeral, Aunt Alma cryptically tells Tal that he has "the chance to make everything right. You can fix it. . . . But your daddy will let you know what to do when the time comes" [p. 24]. Like Hamlet, Talcott is charged by his father, beyond the grave, to set things right. In what other ways is Talcott a Hamlet-like character? In what ways must he both fulfill and transcend his father's demands?

5. What makes Jack Ziegler such a frightening character? In what ways is he more than merely a villain? In what sense is he, as Talcott says of him, the "author" of the Garland family's misery?

6. His cousin Sally tells Tal: "You think you're so different from Uncle Oliver, but you're just like him. In some good ways, sure, but in some of the worst ways, too. You look down your nose at people you think are your moral inferiors. People like your brother. People like me" [p. 270]. Is she right? In what other ways is Tal like his father? How is he different from him?

7. What role do the chess problems play in the novel? How do they lead Talcott to uncover his father's "arrangements"? How are they related to issues of race and power? In what sense is Talcott himself a pawn?

8. When a man calls his house asking for his wife, Tal thinks: "Odd the way the immediate concerns about a dying marriage can knock worries about torture and murder and mysterious chess pieces right out of the box, but priorities are funny that way" [p. 453]. In what ways is the story of Tal and Kimmer's failing marriage — and the larger story of the complex relations in the Garland family — more important than the murder mystery? How are his marital problems related to the mystery he is trying to solve?

9. The Emperor of Ocean Park describes a social milieu rarely seen in American fiction: the black middle class. What does the novel tell us about the highly successful people who make up this class? How are they different from African Americans more commonly encountered in modern and contemporary fiction?

10. Late in the novel, "a wave of fatalism" sweeps over Tal and he wonders "whether I could have done anything differently, or if, once the Judge died, setting his awful plan in motion, and Jack Ziegler showed up demanding to know the arrangements, everything else was fixed. Whether my marriage, even, was doomed from the day of the funeral" [p. 533]. Is the story fated to end as it does or could Talcott have changed its outcome? What might he have done differently?

11. The Emperor of Ocean Park is not merely a thriller, but also an extended critique of American culture, commenting on issues of family, religion, law, education, race, marriage, wealth, and politics. What do the frequent philosophical digressions add to the novel? What beliefs and values does Talcott Garland try to live by?

12. During a dinner-table argument, Dr. Young asserts that Satan "always attacks us in the same ways. . . . He attacks us with sexual desire and other temptations that distract the body. He attacks us with drink and drugs and other temptations that addle the brain. He attacks us with racial hatred and love of money and other temptations that distort the soul" [p. 346]. How does this perspective illuminate the behavior of the major characters in novel? Who gives in to the temptations that Dr. Young describes in this speech? Who resists them?

13. How do Tal's relationships with his family — with his father, his sister, his brother, his wife, and his son — change over the course of the novel?

14. When Talcott retells the story of how he and his future wife had gotten out of the Burial Ground by crawling through a drainage tunnel, he writes: "Some metaphors need no interpretation" [p. 515]. Is the meaning of this metaphor obvious? How should the escape from the cemetery be interpreted? How is the Burial Ground itself important to the novel's plot?

15. As the Judge's secret life is revealed, Dana Worth, a woman who had always admired Oliver Garland, tells Talcott: "I don't want to say he was evil . . . but he wasn't just deluded, either" [p. 615]. How should the Judge finally be judged? What drove him to do what he did? Are his actions understandable? Forgivable?

16. When he delivers the eulogy at Theo Mountain's funeral, Talcott breaks down weeping. "I suppose people think I was crying over Theo. Maybe I was, a little. But, mainly, I was crying over all the good things that will never be again, and the way the Lord, when you least expect it, forces you to grow up" [p. 620]. What are the "good things" Talcott mourns the loss of here? In what ways has the Lord forced him to "grow up"? How have the events of the novel changed him?

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is the author of seven acclaimed nonfiction books, including The Culture of Disbelief and Civility. He lives with his wife and children near New Haven, Connecticut.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

ftiernan1, December 7, 2007 (view all comments by ftiernan1)
I found this novel to be disorganized and rambling. It seems to be written by someone with the attention span of a moth.

Though I appreciate a lengthy novel, this story could have been told in a book about one quarter it's size.

Additionally, the characters were ill defined and not very compelling.

A difficult book to recommend...
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jgaskew, December 25, 2006 (view all comments by jgaskew)
It took me 3 attempts before I could get into this book. I had to do some investigating on some of the legal meanings that I did not know or understand (very educational for me). Once I passed that point it was very good reading, it kept me guessing util the very end. I enjoyed this work.
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cruxkhalif, November 28, 2006 (view all comments by cruxkhalif)
I just read the last page of this 881 page book and I'm sure he could have told the same story in half the number of pages. Carter is too descriptive: it may be his style,but it is also his flaw. I was always carried away on a tangent before he got back to the point. I had to go back to check how many novels he had written, and when I found this to be his first,I realized why he wanted to impress.
He can tell a story alright, but he needs more focus. I guess Grisham couldn't tell him that.

Nice story, but unnecessarily lengthy and tends to dull one.
I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking this.
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Product Details

Carter, Stephen L.
Carter, Stephen L.
New York
Mystery fiction
Fathers and sons
Suspense fiction
African Americans
Legal stories
Domestic fiction
Martha's Vineyard
Law teachers.
African American families
African American judges
African American college teachers
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Vintage Contemporaries
Series Volume:
no. 47
Publication Date:
June 4, 2002
Grade Level:
9.62x6.48x1.58 in. 2.17 lbs.

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Emperor of Ocean Park
0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 672 pages Alfred A. Knopf - English 9780375413636 Reviews:
"Review" by , "It's an elephant ? not just its size, but its strange collection of parts: It's a light thriller for the beach; a wicked satire of academic politics; a stinging exposé of the judicial confirmation process; a trenchant analysis of racial progress in America....Carter has violated the Jim Crow laws of popular fiction (No academics allowed) and won everybody over." (read the entire CSM review)
"Review" by , "To be fair, there's some nice writing here, though the prose tends toward the melodramatic. But the author's problem isn't that he can't write. It's that he can't tell a story. Emperor is muddy, messy, cluttered, and chockablock with false clues and meaningless details. As for the hype: You don't believe everything you hear, do you?" (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review" by , "Fascinating....[A] suspenseful tale of ambition, revenge, and the power of familial obligations....An elegantly nuanced novel, with finely drawn characters, a challenging plot, and perfect pacing."
"Review" by , "[W]hile The Emperor of Ocean Park...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.'...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...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...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....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."
"Review" by , "A thrilling read, driven by a powerful cocktail of plot and character."
"Review" by , "The book's subject, an often-ignored segment of American society, is a welcome departure. However, the author is prone to lectures on race relations and the state of academe, and the story suffers from his tin ear for dialogue and portentous tone."
"Review" by , "A novel of great originality and insight: a saga of an African-American family of affluence and privilege forced to reckon with their misadventures and crimes. But Carter's novel also explores, perhaps for the first time in recent memory, a less familiar vision of the black experience in America: one of pride and optimism, and possibility. I've never read a book quite like it, and I enjoyed it very much indeed."
"Review" by , "Those who enjoy a leisurely pace to their suspense and subscribe to Carter's philosophy of conservatism will enjoy it. The rest will stick with Grisham, Martini, and Margolin."
"Review" by , "I think it's not much of an exaggeration to suggest that in Stephen Carter the black upper class has found its Dreiser....There are some wonderful set pieces....It is at its center a book about the pleasures and miseries of family life, and the scenes in Talcott's house, the pauses and silences and evasions and eruptions when one spouse is having an affair and the other isn't, are very well done..."
"Review" by , "How interesting is the book's exploration of black America's elite? Ceaselessly. And how compelling are the characters? Here, Carter steps on a land mine, for a dud....[I]n a novel this ambitious, great characters have to be more than just the sum of their ideas. Grade: B-"
"Review" by , "With great skill, Carter builds toward a series of climaxes that explode over the final 150 pages. Few readers will refrain from racing excitedly through them. A melodrama with brains and heart to match its killer plot....Irresistible."
"Review" by , "[F]irst-rate....This thriller, which touches electrically on our sexual, racial and religious anxieties, will be the talk of the political in-crowd this summer."
"Synopsis" by , Set in the privileged world of New York-Washington-Martha's Vineyard upper-crust African-American society and the inner circle of an Ivy League law school, Carter tells the story of a complex family with a single seductive and dangerous link to the shadow lands of crime.
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