Stephen L. CarterCredit BARRY FALLS
“An obsession with pigmentation is even now the curse of our race,” says the narrator of Stephen L. Carter’s celebrated first novel, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” published in 2002. The line could serve as an epigraph for Carter’s new, equally ambitious novel, “New England White” (Knopf; $26.95). Both books are, defiantly, loose baggy monsters, fusing such popular genres as the mystery, the thriller, the academic satire, the domestic family melodrama, and the seriocomic social novel; both are meditations on race by sharp-eyed citizens of the “darker nation” uneasily dwelling within the “paler nation”—in the fictitious New England university town of Elm Harbor and its neighboring village, Tyler’s Landing,samsung aa pb6nc6w laptop battery, the “heart of whiteness.” Tyler’s Landing is a place where local residents are quick to declare that they have “nothing against the coloreds” but nonetheless keep a precise count of how many African-American families live in their community.
In “New England White,” the new president of the university is the formidable former White House counsel Lemaster Carlyle, Barbados-born, a “tough little spark-plug of a man” who has been introduced in “The Emperor of Ocean Park” as a “nearly perfect politician” and a founder of a “forgotten organization called Liberals for Bush.” (In the new novel, we learn that he was a college roommate—and is seemingly still a close friend—of the current incumbent of the Oval Office.) He and his wife, Julia, from whose perspective most of “New England White” is narrated, constitute “the most celebrated couple in African America’s lonely Harbor County outpost.” Yet more awkwardly for Elm Harbor’s color-conscious locals, the town’s first murder victim in decades, Kellen Zant, a flamboyantly driven economist and onetime lover of Julia Carlyle, also happens to be black.
The search for the identity of Zant’s killer, the circumstances involving Zant’s own investigation into a thirty-year-old mystery (a rape-murder of a white girl by, allegedly, a black boy, who was slain by police before he could be tried), the myriad snarled connections between the Carlyles and the murder victim: these provide “New England White” with the considerable fuel required to maintain narrative momentum through more than five hundred pages. As a murder mystery, the novel moves, at times, with unusual deliberation, for it is the author’s intention not to “tell” a story but to show how an essential story has been mis-told in the struggle to define the truth. Here, the truth is about who killed the teen-age girl, why the suspect may have been killed without provocation, and why no one in power has been willing to talk about the episode. It sounds like a familiar situation, with ugly racist overtones, but it’s one that Carter handles with audacious originality. In the novel’s Manichaean universe—a universe that lends itself readily to Hawthornian allegory of the kind New Englanders are bred to appreciate—“good” people (in this case, of the darker nation) must combat “evil” people, by the strategy not of frontal attack, nor even of public exposure, but of seizing secrets, and exploiting them. It’s as if the world were held together not by ties of blood and kinship but sheerly by the relay circuits of power: you will respect me because I know a terrible truth about you, and I will not reveal this terrible truth because, if I do, I will lose my power over you. As we’re told in the novel’s concluding pages, “The world is full of secrets people manage to keep.”
In both “New England White” and “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” the basic mystery becomes tangled in subplots, flashbacks, masterly thumbnail portraits, and acerbic asides on such facets of haute-black-bourgeois society as the “club life of the darker nation.” It can be easy to lose one’s way. If the reader perseveres, however, Carter’s deftly orchestrated clockwork plot resolves itself satisfactorily, at least for the first couple of Harbor County’s darker nation.
Though “New England White” is only Carter’s second work of fiction, he has long been a highly respected law scholar and public intellectual, the author of books on subjects like affirmative action and the place of religion in the public sphere. A professor of law at Yale since 1982, Carter takes care in the author’s notes to his novels to discourage the reader from assuming that he has written a roman à clef, or that Elm Harbor is a “thinly disguised New Haven”—though Carter cannot resist adding that the two towns “share a lot of the same ghosts.”
Whether Talcott Garland is an utter invention or the author’s Dostoyevskian double, it is Garland’s unsparing, often corrosive voice that gives much of “The Emperor of Ocean Park” a mesmerizing authenticity. Garland is the aggrieved younger son of a once distinguished and now notorious African-American judge with such impeccable conservative credentials that he was a Reagan nominee to the United States Supreme Court, although his Senate confirmation hearings ended in bitter defeat and public humiliation. After his father’s fall, the emotionally withdrawn Garland succumbs to fugues of rage. There are flashes of resentment toward his rich white brother-in-law, as toward the hustlers and poseurs of his own color:
So now it is my turn to be offended. . . on behalf of the race: 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. The room fades around me. Through the red curtain, I still see, albeit dimly, these ambitious black kids in their ambitious little suits. . . vying for the favor of my brother-in-law because he is a managing director at Goldman Sachs, and I suddenly understand the passion of the 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….I am the few. My wife is the few. My sister is the few….And the world is such a bright, angry red.
Even Garland’s pride in his family is derived from a racial distinction: “Ours is an old family, which, among people of our color, is a reference less to social than to legal status. Ancestors of ours were free and earning a living when most members of the darker nation were in chains. . . . Like good Americans, we not only forgive the crime of chattel slavery but celebrate the criminals.” As Julia Carlyle’s grandmother observed, “There are our black people and there are other black people.”
While Talcott Garland is brooding, inclined to melancholia, prematurely middle-aged, suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, Hamlet-like in his obsession with avenging his disgraced father, Julia Carlyle, the still point within the bustling plot of “New England White,” is one of those sweetly accommodating African-American liberals whom Garland scorns. As first glimpsed by Garland in “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” Julia is Lemaster Carlyle’s “perfect wife . . . as small and dark and cute as Lemaster himself.” In “New England White,” though, an omniscient narrator notes that “her skin was many shades lighter than his blue-black.” Unlike the misanthropic Garland, Julia, “the most popular girl at her New Hampshire high school,” seems incapable of disliking anyone; she feels more sympathy than vindictiveness toward her ex-lover Kellen Zant, despite the fact that he had abused her emotionally and may have had sexual designs on her troubled seventeen-year-old daughter, Vanessa.
Julia is a lovely woman whom we would all wish for a friend, but, as the heroine of a novel with action-thriller scenes of physical combat and flight, she is an unconvincing choice. For one so preoccupied with color, Julia is oddly colorless. Melodramatic scenes in which this petite wife and mother staves off a murderous villain strain credibility. The intrusion of unabashedly “action thriller” material into a normally slow-evolving narrative characterized by lengthy passages of exposition and introspection is jarring and seems to undercut the seriousness of Carter’s intentions.
Though there is much to admire in “New England White,” especially in the interstices of the mystery plot, the novel seems to lack the vigor, intensity, and air of authenticity of its predecessor. Julia Carlyle doesn’t have the perverse charisma of ressentiment that makes Talcott Garland so effective a narrator. Where the fall of the brilliant Judge Garland, in “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” has a tragic grandeur that helps the novel overcome its genre underpinnings, the womanizing Kellen Zant, an “old faker” who “Mau-Maued everybody into hiring him” and “made a fortune off of being the official, true-blue, certified Negro economist,” has so little gravitas that the quest to find his murderer lacks urgency, and the murder mystery becomes purely plot. And where “The Emperor of Ocean Park” ends ambiguously, with Talcott Garland’s awareness of his father’s complicity in crime, and of his own blighted life, “New England White” ends with an improbable fantasy resolution in which the President of the United States and a powerful senator are held at bay by a canny citizen of the darker nation. Who in the paler nation would guess that “an obscure Harlem men’s club, membership limited by charter to ‘four hundred colored gentlemen of quality,’ ” secretly controls “the destiny of the nation”? ?
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