The Emperor of Ocean Park
by Stephen L. Carter
A review by John McWhorter
But for the fact that he has written a novel, Stephen L. Carter is not a novelist.
He is a professor of law at Yale who made his debut in 1991 with a lively and
candid book called Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, a sober exploration
of affirmative action and its effect on his life. He could have ridden this book
to talking-head fame as a professional contrarian in the media; but he is a restrained
man, and he has resisted the temptation to become an "alternative black voice"
on Fox News or in The Wall Street Journal. Instead he followed up with
six treatises on the nature of our public discourse. Their tone is reflected by
the title of one of them, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,
which appeared in 1998. He has also argued for the legitimacy of religious faith
in intellectual argument and in public policy, in The Culture of Disbelief:
How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1993). These
are, among other things, books by a black author that do not focus on race, which
makes them very rare and valuable indeed.
But here is this huge novel, and it does focus on race, and it is, of all things, a thriller. The Emperor of Ocean Park is a thoroughly competent effort, though I wish I could say that I couldn't put it down. I cannot see in it the masterpiece that others have seen. But this is actually good news. In ways even beyond those woven into Carter's tale, the book is a sign of integration on the march in spite of itself. If it is not an important artistic achievement, The Emperor of Ocean Park is certainly an important social document.
As the novel opens, Judge Oliver Garland of the D.C. Circuit United States Court of Appeals, a notorious black conservative, has died of a heart attack at his desk. Among those at the funeral are his three children, including his son Talcott, the book's protagonist, who is a law professor at a prestigious northeastern university. Judge Garland was a cold martinet of a man, greeting his children's sorrows and tribulations with stern lectures on moral fiber. He elicited more respect than affection. After his funeral, his children expect to shuttle back efficiently to their busy lives as scions of the black bourgeois elite, but Talcott is approached by the sinister, wraith-like Jack Ziegler, an operator of vast power and vaster governmental connections, nearing the end of an infamous life spent escaping conviction for assorted high-profile crimes. Ziegler was a friend of the Judge's and he is godfather to his children, and he reports that the Judge had promised him that Talcott would hand over to him certain "arrangements" after the Judge's death. But Talcott has no idea what these "arrangements" are. Ziegler is livid. He departs with the assumption that Talcott will eventually come through, ominously assuring him that he will make sure that no harm comes to him or his family in the meantime.
Clearly all was not well in the Judge's life. A daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident years ago, and the police were of little help in seeking the culprit. This sent the usually abstemious Judge into a spell of heavy drinking and seclusion. The Judge later achieved his lifelong dream of being nominated for the Supreme Court (by the Reagan administration: Carter weaves many actual events into his story). But Oliver Garland joined Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg in the line of thwarted Supreme Court nominees when it was proven that he had some late-night meetings with the unsavory Ziegler at his office years ago, despite his having denied this in former questioning. This sinks Garland into national disgrace, driving him to further drinking and obsessive resentment of the "white liberals" who did him in.
It is not long before certain documents disappear from the Judge's study, and two pawns are stolen from his chess set, and the preacher who presided at the Judge's funeral is brutally murdered. None of the family and friends whom Talcott questions about the Judge's past yield anything but the vaguest of hints as to what these and similar events might mean. Then Talcott finds the family's summer house on Martha's Vineyard ransacked, with a curious note left behind in his father's hand with cryptic references to "Angela's boyfriend" being the only one who knows what "the arrangements" are. "Excelsior, my son!" the note ends. "Excelsior! It begins!"
It is Talcott's solitary and frustrating unraveling of the meaning of this note that centers Carter's novel, which is by turns a tale of suspense and a black family saga. Talcott's efforts are complicated when his wife, an ambitious lawyer, is nominated for a federal judgeship in competition with one of his faculty colleagues, while assorted shadowy figures emerge with an equally intense interest in "the arrangements." They take to following him everywhere he goes. Some appear to fall outside the sphere of Ziegler's protective edict, and the doughy suburbanite Talcott winds up getting a taste of scaling scaffolds, jumping out of taxis, taking punches, and fighting for his life in a cemetery in the dark of night. Another pursuer is a comely black woman, one of the book's tastier characters. She is certainly more interesting than one more laconic male in a windbreaker.
Carter stirs enough elements into the mix that the narrative never exactly flags. The last one hundred pages step up the pace a bit. The dean of the law school gives Talcott two weeks to solve the mystery on pain of being fired for embarrassing Yale (excuse me, "the university") with his escapades. Eventually Talcott becomes a man who gains control of his own fate instead of only being acted upon; and this enriches the thriller plot with a story of a character's spiritual development, so that the novel does not conclude only with the mechanical resolution of the mystery. But finally the thriller and the family story never quite mesh. Of course, the fact that we encounter wealthy blacks so seldom in fiction renders the book a rather ceremonious occasion, and as such I found it ticklish to see the Garlands and their circle pasted into the paint-by-numbers routines of a thriller, often at the cost of human plausibility.
Consider Talcott's meeting with his doctor cousin Lanie, a woman d'un certain âge who belonged to one of the last layers of the pre-civil rights black bourgeoisie chronicled by Lawrence Otis Graham in Our Kind of People (1999). Carter spends a couple of pages nicely limning the fragile equipoise that these people maintained as the elite layer of a group dismissed by the wealthy whites they studiously imitated. But then he immediately plunks her into his hackneyed mystery story. Talcott is in Washington, D.C. at a conference and takes her to lunch, but before she has talked herself out she has to get back to the office. Talcott ends up squeezing a few last crumbs of information out of her but why couldn't he just meet her after work? She is family, after all. And surely she has a phone.
Carter is certainly aware of the dangers of this juxtaposition of poignant reality with Tom Clancy schematics, and his main linking strategy is a chess metaphor that he pulls off beautifully. The Judge was a chess player and he passed his obsession on to Talcott; and without giving away the plot, suffice it to say that the intricacies of chess technique are expertly interwoven into the text and are crucial to the resolution of the mystery. Even the black-white metaphor is freshly handled. And yet nothing wonderful comes of this. The book is still Our Kind of People meets Clear and Present Danger. And the crowd-pleasing machinations overwhelm social and psychological substance.
I wish Carter had honored the drama more than the melodrama. It would have been even a public service of a sort to have written more about Judge Garland's confirmation hearing, which is told only piecemeal and in flashback. In the hands of most black writers, such a story would end up as a plangent updating of the black mulatto genre: wealthy blacks who are "yet a stranger" (as the title of Deborah Mathis's new victimology primer puts it) at white cocktail parties, haunted by a fear that not being poor renders them "inauthentic" as black people. The nice thing about Carter's version of the tale is the absence from it of all the usual lachrymosity. This is an African American saga that is not premised on African American self-pity.
Talcott's wife Kimberly, proudly sporting her prep-school name Kimmer, is too busy climbing the legal ranks to be bothered with feeling guilty about being self-realized and successful, and Carter gives not a hint that this sort of guilt would spill out of her after a few drinks. His characters believe in the possibility of a well-adjusted and optimistic black life. Talcott's sister Mariah is married to a rich white man, and she is somewhat bored and lonely staying home and raising a brood of children; but Carter portrays this as a human issue, as a woman's issue, but not as a racial issue. His people are "just" human something successful blacks are rarely allowed to be in African American fiction. Even in the work of a novelist as fine as Gloria Naylor, there runs a chariness of wealthy blacks as "misbegotten." In Linden Hills, Naylor has the General Motors executive Maxwell Smyth find in college that "his blackness began to disappear behind his straight A average, and his reputation for never sweating or getting cold." His personal life is arid: "the black women he wanted to date found him strange and the white women strangely comforting," and "he found the erratic rhythms and temperatures that normally accompany sex a problem, so he rarely slept with a woman. He didn't consider it a great deprivation because before he was even thirty, an erection had become almost as difficult to achieve as an orgasm." Smyth is so perverted by a desire to prove himself worthy to whites that he observes an obsessive diet that divests his feces of any smell.
There are no such admonitions in Carter's novel. And neither does he err in the other direction, by depicting an idealized clan of shining archetypes of black nobility. The Garlands are a distinctly joyless family. The Judge was self-involved to the point of staying out on the road doing speaking engagements while his wife lay dying. The reader's initial impulse to suppose that he was a saintly figure in his public life also turns out to be mistaken. Relations with the extended family are decent but cool there are no warm, hip, perfect grandparents à la The Cosby Show to keep everybody sane with their ancient racial wisdom. Carter depicts Talcott as Christian, but he does not press the point, and the church hovers at the margins of the novel; there are no joyous redemptions to the rock of Baptist church singing, and no poor souls healing themselves through the agency of the Almighty. Nor is there an all-knowing, saintly maternal figure: the Judge's wife is dead when the novel begins, and anyway this old-style garden-party matron does not appear to have made much of an impression upon anyone.
So the Garlands are refreshingly joyless. There is a tendency to depict black families as awash in a moist, unreflective, almost primitive brand of affection. (This was lampooned especially well by George C. Wolfe in the sketch in The Colored Museum mocking the "Mama-on-the-Couch Play.") This canonical sentimentality is owed in part to the experience of slavery: if society thinks of you as chattel, then certainly blood relations will take up the slack. Oppressed groups with loose family ties are exceedingly rare. And it is owed also to the black church tradition. Black Americans are among the most fervently Christian people in the United States by a wide margin, regardless of class or educational level. It is not an accident that the film of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale includes a loving transition shot of the four middle-class protagonists happily walking out of church one Sunday. This seems unremarkable until we imagine a similar shot in a typical white movie: we can scarcely imagine characters played, say, by Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, or Sandra Bullock going anywhere near a church, except to get married.
These strains of primal mother love and unreconstructed piety were united by Lorraine Hansberry in A Raisin in the Sun, when the archetypal matriarch Lena Younger slaps her daughter Beneatha for denying the existence of God and demands that she recite, "In my mother's house there is still God." Beneatha dutifully submits to maternal authority under the family roof, and the exchange rings true for almost anyone who has grown up in a black household. (In rehearsals for the original production, Claudia McNeil felt the power of the scene so deeply that she slapped poor Diana Sands hard enough to require restraint by an outside party.) This was fine for 1959, but there is none of it, mercifully, in The Emperor of Ocean Park. I do not mean to disparage the value of familial love or religious belief; but in the post-civil rights America in which we live, there are times when the Cult of the Mother in black American entertainment smacks of the Cult of the Noble Savage. And so I liked that the Garlands in Carter's novel are more Ordinary People than Meet Me in St. Louis. The book places black characters in a new and more general module of humanity in which they are not often depicted, and this must be counted as progress. If only the characters themselves were not on the flat side.
Strictly speaking, Carter's novel is not about the wealthy black world that Graham depicts in Our Kind of People. Talcott's parents were part of that world, but we are given it only in occasional flashbacks; and though this world still exists to an extent, Talcott, his siblings, and their spouses and paramours inhabit it at the fringes at best. Observing one of their gatherings at the conference hotel, Talcott grouses about the old college test: "If your skin is any darker than this paper bag, you can't join our sorority. Oh, but we are sick people! A buried sentiment catches me by surprise, welling up from some putrefying source deep inside of me, a wave of cold, brutal hatred for my parents' way of life, for their exclusive little circle and its usually cruel snap judgments about everybody on the outside." So much for Our Kind of People.
But then Talcott also knows that this was not the whole story, later admitting that "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." Obviously there is drama here, of the sort that could be mined rewardingly by a gifted novelist. But Carter steers clear of these complexities: customs such as the Jack and Jill clubs where well-off black children got to know one another and made lifelong connections or exclusive black clubs such as the Boulé are mentioned only in passing.
Instead, Carter's characters are almost whitewashed. The absence of the tropes of down-home "negritude" is certainly a strength of this book; but there is a danger in the other extreme. If I may briefly indulge in a bit of "Soul Patrol": Talcott and his wife's fiction collection is described as including John Updike, E.L. Doctorow, Jane Smiley, and Scott Turow, with Toni Morrison the only black author on the list (she is also later dropped in as a favorite of Mariah's). Kimmer's favorite movie is Casablanca. Citizen Kane comes to Talcott's mind as readily as Shaft or Do the Right Thing would for most black characters. The problem is that if "blackness" is this marginal to these characters' everyday lives, then what remains is just affluent people driving around in BMWs and watching Casablanca who happen to have dark skin. But are there really many people likely to read this book who will be shocked (shocked!) that there are more than a few black people who make a lot of money, drive nice cars, and even have brace yourself summer houses? In 2002, a black character does not acquire humanity by having a walk-in closet.
The problem of wanness holds also for the characters' politics. Talcott's views on these issues are too ceaselessly moderate to liven him up as a figure. Here are his thoughts on welfare as he does community work in a soup kitchen:
This is what conservatives have spawned with their welfare cuts and their indifference to the plight of those not like themselves, say my colleagues at the university. This is what liberals have spawned with their fostering of the victim mentality and their indifference to the traditional values of hard work and family, my father used to tell his cheering audiences. In my sour moments, it strikes me that both sides seem much more interested in winning the argument than in alleviating these women's suffering.
This is good, and true, and a fine editorial. But it is so middle-of-the-road that it becomes a wise footnote rather than something that would allow us to engage with Talcott in any profound way. Is success really the death of edge?
Similarly, Talcott is skeptical of campus identity politics, and thinks blacks should stop trusting white liberals; and then he is just as skeptical of his late father's stardom on the white conservative circuit espousing right-wing messages. Again he seeks the sensible center. But this is a novel, not a Century Fund study; and the absence of strong feeling from it is crippling. Come on, Professor Carter I mean, Professor Garland: what do you really think we should do? How do you really feel? People must have passions at least if they are to affect us in novels. In this regard, Stephen Carter is the very antithesis of Walter Mosley, whose thrillers overflow with intensities of experience. Mosley, of course, has a bleaker and angrier view of black life than Carter. Against Mosley I would insist that political radicalism is not the condition of black art but at least Mosley's characters regularly grouse, seethe, and even erupt.
In sum, Talcott Garland is just rather dull. He neither hates nor loves his job. He does not seem to inspire any particular following among students; there is not a hint of warmth between him and the one person depicted as his former protégé. He is constantly pointing out that he is less physically fit, less interesting, even less brilliant than those around him. In the romantic realm as well he is mashed potatoes. Kimmer has obviously fallen out of love with him. She has always said she was in eternal need of novelty, and she dumped him more than once for other "more interesting" men while they were dating in law school. Throughout the novel no sane person could doubt that she is being unfaithful to her husband. Yet Talcott loves her devotedly and wants to stay with her at the very least for the sake of their child. The marriage is fraying for more than six hundred fifty pages, and yet never does he even consider standing up for himself. He maintains an almost pre-modern wariness of being seen alone with a woman other than his wife, even when the woman is a lesbian colleague. Talcott often recalls times when they were "torridly" in love, snuggling in front of fireplaces and retiring many nights directly after dinner for, well, you know (Carter is very discreet about sex); but the character whom Carter gives us is unimaginable in scenes such as this. (He does have one savory touch, though: Talcott's physical attraction goes not to the willowy light-skinned women who have such a premium in high black bourgeois society, but to dark-skinned women on the zaftig side.)
Carter's dialogue distances the reader still further from his people. He seems reluctant to let his characters just talk. Roughly every second line of any conversation is interrupted by Talcott's impressions of what his interlocutor said, how he or she said it, and what the hidden meanings might be. Talcott spent some time studying semiotics, and so this endless commentary technically follows from the character, and sometimes it issues in smart writing. Here Talcott is talking to a Supreme Court justice who was close friends with his father:
"Your father would no more have sold his vote on a case than ... than" a pause while he searches for just the right simile, then a mischievous grin to tell me he has found it "why, than I would," he finishes with a self-deprecating smile, realizing, perhaps, that he has played perfectly into his own image as moderately egomaniacal.
I am almost done. One last bit of confusion to clear up. "So, if my father was a man of such integrity and such intelligence" I hesitate here: did Wainwright actually say at any point that my father was smart? I cannot recall, and, when white intellectuals speak of black ones, the question is of no small importance "if he was so honest and so smart, then why did he bring Jack Ziegler into the courthouse?"
Here the internal musings are shrewd and poignant and useful, and they plainly reflect the concerns that Carter explored in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. But Carter almost never allows characters to come right out and speak to one another, even in moments of high passion. Even the arguments between Talcott and Kimmer are largely recounted retrospectively.
Carter wraps up the main meal with a "Scooby Doo" ending. Suffice it to say that a certain personage ends up spending a counter-intuitively long time explicating their motives during a tense moment, peeved that they could have gotten away with it if "it wasn't for you nosy kid." This is, alas, the rare book that will almost certainly be improved upon by the movie. The cinematic medium will not tolerate Talcott's tacked-on political musings, and good actors can suggest years of a character's experience in two or three lines.
It is certainly a great day when a book by a black author is splashed all over the big bookstores with the assumption that people of all races will buy it; but still I insist that people such as the Garlands deserve better and richer portraiture. Carter's characters escape the stereotypes, but too often they surrender human intensity in the process. But then few complain that Tom Clancy's characters are less "round" than Tolstoy's. The Emperor of Ocean Park is, in its way, a sign of progress in its weaknesses. When rich black people are wound up and set loose in a banal thriller just like white ones, true equality is that much closer.
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