Suppose you are a chess-playing professor at a distinguished law school, raised in the heart of the African-American haute bourgeoisie, publicly active as an evangelical Christian, and famous for combining a strong sense of black solidarity with ambivalence about affirmative action. Suppose, in short, that you are Stephen L. Carter. Now suppose you write a mystery novel whose protagonist, Talcott Garland, is a chess-playing professor at an eminent law school, raised in the heart of the African-American haute bourgeoisie, an active Christian, ambivalent about affirmative action, and given to extensive ruminations on the state of what he calls “the darker nation.” You run the risk that, at least among people who write reviews, the book will be taken as a roman à clef. Your hero’s skeptical views of the federal judicial confirmation process, contemporary black political leadership, and white liberals will likely be assumed to be your own, especially if these views seem consonant with opinions you have yourself expressed. And some readers will seek to infer your views—the views of the Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter—about topics on which you have not so famously delivered yourself, from the curious function of student-edited law reviews to the bizarre intricacies of law school politics.
Nor, alas, will it necessarily help to write an author’s note asserting flatly that your book is “not a roman à clef on law teaching, or on the bizarre process by which we confirm (or fail to confirm) Supreme Court Justices, or the tribulations of middle-class black America, or anything else,” particularly if this denial comes at the end of the novel. Carter’s extended disclaimer—at three pages it counts as a note only by the standards of a law review—is, so to say, the fine print to the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law’s compact with his readers, excusing him from responsibility for any implications they may draw, while acknowledging that some will probably draw them anyway.
Though Carter is a freshman novelist, he is a well-established scholar and commentator, the author of half a dozen nonfiction books about some serious matters: American race relations, the integrity of the judiciary, religion and the state. Among these books are Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991), the best-selling The Culture of Disbelief (1993), The Confirmation Mess (1995), and, most recently, God’s Name in Vain (2000), and they have established Carter as a robust defender of moderate politics and of religious values in public life, one who takes issue with both liberal and conservative orthodoxies. In insisting that his novel is not a roman à clef, then, Carter is not merely protecting himself from misreading, but sparing his readers the burden of looking for heavy hidden messages about the world beyond fiction.
That burden has lain heavily upon black writers in particular. For decades, many readers have approached fictions by black writers as if they were, in the first instance, a contribution to the sociology of race relations. No writer of novels can relish having constantly to remind people, as Stephen Carter does at the beginning of his author’s note, that “this is a work of fiction. It stems from my imagination.” So let us allow Professor Carter, public intellectual, to claim the status of Stephen Carter, suspense novelist, not least because The Emperor of Ocean Park is a delightful, sprawling, gracefully written, imaginative work, with sharply delineated characters who dwell in a fully realized narrative world.
The presiding consciousness of the novel is that of Talcott “Tal” Garland, whose bitter, edgy, self-deprecating sensibility is present on almost every page. Tal has lived his life in the shadow of his famous—and, in many circles, notorious—father, an extremely conservative judge who had been appointed by Nixon to the United States Court of Appeals, and was briefly a Reagan nominee to the United States Supreme Court. “When my father finally died,” the book opens, “he left the Redskins tickets to my brother, the house on Shepard Street to my sister, and the house on the Vineyard to me.” But the house in Oak Bluffs isn’t the only thing Tal inherits. It becomes clear that Judge Oliver Garland’s death leaves Tal the task of unfolding the mystery of his life, and also of finding out whether, like his conspiracy-minded sister Mariah, he should believe that this death was, in fact, a murder. Painful memories are reawakened of the judge’s failed nomination to the nation’s highest court and of the scandal that ensued when one of his clerks revealed he had been meeting in the federal courthouse with a college roommate named Jack Ziegler, a “disgraced former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency,” who, though never convicted of any crime, is rumored to be a powerful force behind shadowy criminal activities and to have murdered many people, including his own wife.
Tal feels obliged to look back into his father’s life and death because of the instructions in a cryptic letter from the judge, delivered to Tal posthumously at the house on Martha’s Vineyard. Tal is repeatedly and urgently asked by the maleficent Ziegler about certain mysterious “arrangements” that his father made during his lifetime and that he mentions in his letter. Whether or not these and other secrets will be revealed now that he is dead is a question that is posed with various degrees of menace by various others, including a couple of shady private detectives, a mysterious and alluring black woman, who reappears from time to time, and a Supreme Court judge.
These elements may sound like the standard repertory of the crime novel, and, as if to acknowledge that he is playing the mystery writer’s game, Carter raises suspense at the end of some of his chapters with small moments of revelation: “I peel off the tape as gracefully as I am able, unwrap the paper, and find, inside, the missing white pawn from my father’s hand-turned chess set.” But Tal’s account of his investigations is combined with telling descriptions of the dynamics of family life and of the places the Garland family has made its own. The Garlands’ house on the Vineyard is named Vinerd Howse. It was
a phrase selected by my sister Abby when she was small, quite by accident—she wrote it on a picture of the house she drew in the kitchen with crayons from the Crayola 64 box one rainy Oak Bluffs afternoon—and it was my unemotive father who surprised us a week later with the plaque.
Vinerd Howse is on Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, the center of a “black middle-class colony” that spends its summers on the island. To mark the tenth anniversary of Judge Garland’s rejection, we’re told,
Time did a story about his life since leaving the bench. The two-page spread revisited his angry books, quoted some of his stump speeches, and, in the interest of journalistic balance, gave some of his old enemies the chance to take fresh shots at him…. The magazine noted that he was spending more and more time “at his summer home in Oak Bluffs,” nearly always by himself, and although Time made the house sound far grander than it is (“a five bedroom cottage on the water”) and also got its name wrong (“known to friends and family as simply ‘The Vineyard House'”), the article caught the tenor of his life exactly. The piece was titled, with faint, depressing irony, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
The house, its name, its place in the life of their father and their own lives as children: all these things are richly, and sometimes economically, evoked.
If the novel is a portrait of imaginary places, embedded in real ones, it is also an exploration of an imaginary family, equally embedded in the actualities of our country and our age. Tal’s beautiful but tightly wound wife, Kimberly, known as Kimmer, is a high-powered litigator who is often away, leaving her husband at home with their young son and mounting anxieties about her fidelity. As for Tal, he presents himself as a loyal and loving, but not untempted, husband. (Consistent with his Christian sensibilities, he seeks, in moments of marital unease, the counsel of a local Baptist minister.) The marriage will come under other strains, too. On the day he is told that his father has died, Tal learns that Kimmer is being considered for nomination to the federal bench: and, since any association with scandal would jeopardize her prospects, she is less than pleased by his investigations into his father’s death and the mystery of his “arrangements.” Meanwhile, her nomination causes strain between him and a colleague who is under consideration for the same position. Carter is deft and plausible in describing the complex intersection of professional and private life in the world of the American overclass. Tal’s portraits of his fellow professors can be devastating. One of his law school colleagues is Ethan Brinkley, who worked for three years as deputy counsel to a congressional intelligence committee and keeps the secret files he pilfered locked in his office. Brinkley
is an athletic and clever little man, with untidy brown hair and innocent brown eyes. He favors scuffed shoes and tweed blazers just rumpled enough to assure the people that he is one of them, except that his rumpled blazers cost a thousand dollars a throw. His gaze never wavers from the face of the person he is talking to, or listening to, but you have the sense from the set of his small mouth and the deep frowning lines on his forehead that it is all show, that behind the ingenuous eyes he is calculating, move and countermove, like a chess player working out his response while your clock is ticking.
When Tal asks Brinkley about a man he suspects of being a hired killer, he gets a display of self-important casuistry:
“Now…we have something of a problem here,” he begins apologetically, and I know a lecture on confidentiality is coming, for, although Ethan Brinkley possesses no ethics to speak of, he has the politician’s knack of talking as though he has plenty. “This information is technically the property of the federal government. If I were to show you this piece of paper, we could both wind up in prison.” Ethan’s bland face puffs up with pride at the idea that he controls so sensitive a document, even if he did steal it.
“But I can tell you the contents.”
“Okay.” I see no legal difference between the two scenarios, and I doubt that Ethan does either, although he would doubtless swear under oath to a grand jury that he thought he was within the rules: If I don’t read the actual words on the page, if I only summarize or paraphrase, I am not precisely divulging the contents of the document, and so I’m outside the statutory prohibitions. Legal hairsplitting of that kind tends to make the public angry, but it is often a good way to escape responsibility for breaking the law. Politicians are fond of it, except when a member of the other party does it. We law professors teach it to our students every day as though it is a virtue.
The very plausibility of such portraits is what raises the temptation for the reader to trespass beyond the borders of fiction. Strictly speaking, of course, a roman à clef is a novel in which the characters are disguised versions of real people and the events bear some relation to real ones as well. In a sort of reversal of the cast list in a theater program, the key to such a novel, the clef, tells you which character is portraying which real person. But none of the imaginary characters in The Emperor of Ocean Park, we can stipulate, stands for a real character. Mr. Carter’s own father—an eminent lawyer and academic and a member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations—was involved in no high court nomination scandal. Stephen Carter tells us in his author’s note that, unlike Talcott Garland, he respects his law school students and colleagues, and we have no reason to disbelieve him.
Still, it’s worth observing that the distinction between a novel that incorporates reality through the devices of fiction and a novel that is, as we say, purely imaginary is not an absolute one. Even in novels that no one would think of as fictionalized portrayals of real events, the world of the novel is very often close to the actual world, and we learn from it something of what the author believes about our reality. It would be strange to deny that we read fiction to learn about the real world, or to assert that novels cannot express real attitudes toward actual conduct. (Indeed, Zola in his day was praised for having made available to his readers the formerly sequestered reality of the rural peasantry.) So what might be thought of as the ethnographic temptation is perhaps not wholly to be resisted.
And the reality that many Americans will find most interestingly available in The Emperor of Ocean Park is, pace its author, exactly that of upper-middle-class black America. Long before its publication, Carter’s novel received a good deal of attention in the press because of the singularly intense competition for the manuscript among publishing houses (it received a record advance for a first novel), and, indeed, movie studios. In his mastery of atmosphere and the intricacies of plot, Carter deserves comparison with such successful practitioners of the crime novel as Scott Turow, but what sets The Emperor of Ocean Park apart is the sense it provides of introducing us to a world within a world. It is the world of a black elite that has connections in Washington’s Gold Coast and in Oak Bluffs, and that was once centered academically on Howard University but now has outposts at Stanford and in the Ivy League. Many of its members have served both the nation and the black community with honor and distinction, as Justice Thurgood Marshall—for whom Mr. Carter clerked—did, and as Oliver Garland once sought to do. (Whether he really did so is a question that hovers over Carter’s book until its surprising and undisclosable ending, with its revelation of what the “arrangements”may have been about.) When Talcott Garland arrives in Washington for his father’s funeral, he introduces this world with a characteristic mixture of sardonic observation and pride:
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. Not all of our ancestors were free, of course, but some, and the family does not dwell on the others: we have buried that bit of historical memory as effectively as the rest of America has buried the larger crime. And, like good Americans, we not only forgive the crime of chattel slavery but celebrate the criminals. My older brother is named for a particular forebear, Waldo Addison, often viewed as our patriarch, a freed slave who, in freedom, owned slaves of his own until forced to flee northward in the 1830s, after Nat Turner’s rebellion led the Commonwealth of Virginia to rethink the status of free negroes—small “n”—as they were then called.
What many readers will find particularly striking about this elite society—though for most middle-class African-Americans it will be not a lesson but a reminder—is that there is, for well-meaning and successful black people in the white-dominated worlds of the academy and the professions, the perpetual risk of moments of angry resentment at the racial status quo. Professor Garland, who lives in an interracial world of power and privilege, finds himself overwhelmed more than once by what the black journalist Ellis Cose has called “the rage of a privileged class.” At one point while he is teaching, he gazes balefully on a student
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 does. About anything…. I catch myself thinking, I could break him.
At another point, during a family gathering at his father’s house before the funeral he watches a crowd of “ambitious black kids in their ambitious little suits,…vying for the favor” of his white brother-in-law “because he is a managing director at Goldman Sachs.” He is offended “less on behalf of the family than 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.”
I stand very still, letting the redness wash over me, wallowing in it in the way a man who has nearly died of thirst might wallow in the shower, absorbing it through every pore, feeling the very cells of my body swell with it, and sensing a near-electric charge in the air, a portent, a symbol of a coming storm, and reliving and reviling in this frozen, furious instant every apple I have ever polished for everybody white who could help me get ahead.
Tal doesn’t try to justify or excuse his rage. It is just a fact of his inner life. And this rage is not tied to the kind of radical politics that you might expect in a less complex person. At the homeless shelter where he serves lunch from time to time, Tal observes that half of the women he serves “may be dead in two years.” His reaction to the situation of these indigent women is as immediate and natural here as when that red veil of anger descends:
I want to weep.
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. Service…. No other answer but that one.
Is Talcott Garland’s view also Stephen Carter’s? There is certainly a skepticism about politics here that would not be alien to the author of God’s Name in Vain, with its antiestablishmentarian worry that entanglement with state power will corrupt God’s people. But a preoccupation with the question of what Garland tells us about Carter is exactly what the real law professor has sought to forestall by his insistence that the novel has no secret key. I am inclined to let him have his way. Why should readers of The Emperor of Ocean Park care what its author thinks when we can know with such elegantly delineated specificity what Talcott Garland, that memorable invention, thinks? Tal’s perspective on the black elite is in some ways representative, true, but profoundly, quirkily particular as well, as the perspective of any richly imagined character must be. It is also a vision of the world we all share. To be sure, readers inclined to make careless inferences about more worldly matters are urged to consult the meticulous caveats of the Author’s Note. “Washington, D.C., is also not precisely the same in my novel as it is on the map,” Carter writes with admirable precision. “In particular, the downtown branch of Brooks Brothers moved a few years ago from its quiet location on L Street to a somewhat fancier and busier corner on Connecticut Avenue.”
It is a detail that Talcott Garland would also have appreciated.
June 27, 2002