Whatever its faults, Stephen L. Carter’s sprawling, diffuse The Emperor of Ocean Park is not quite like any novel in the entire history of seven-figure advances, presold movie deals, and huge first printings (were they crossing their fingers for Oprah? You bet), and for that, its author, a respected Yale law professor and public intellectual making his fiction debut, merits praise. Carter’s novel is actually two books in one (at 654 dense pages, that may be understating it): One is a Scott Turow-style family mystery in which a stolid, tightly wound professor wrestles with a disintegrating marriage to an ambitious lawyer while exploring the possibly suspicious death of his father, a moderate jurist who turned rightward after being nominated to the Supreme Court and rejected in semi-disgrace. The other is a probing, expository depiction of what Carter calls ”the darker nation” — and not, for once, told from the perspective of what he calls ”the paler nation.”
The frequent refrain of those two phrases makes a fresh and energizing point by sheer accretion. This vision of parallel Americas isn’t the ”separate, hostile, unequal” one put forth by social critic Andrew Hacker in his book ”Two Nations”; rather, Carter’s ”darker nation” refers to the corridors of affluence and influence, of making partner and getting tenure and winning judgeships and political appointments and ministries, that define life in black America’s ”Gold Coast.” This world has certainly been explored before, but never in a novel that so shrewdly straddles both popular and literary genres, and never by a first-timer who brings such deep-thinker cred to the table.
As a plotter, Carter has found a reasonably sound structure to propel what’s essentially a series of conversations: As law professor Talcott Garland looks into his father’s death, he reencounters various criminals, judges, politicos, and priests from his family’s past; at the end of each chapter, an ”Aha!” is adroitly dropped in to move things along. How good is the mystery? Not bad. How surprising is the resolution? Barely enough to keep readers from feeling cheated. 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 Garland, our omnipresent narrator and (on a dogmatic level) probable author surrogate, is a dud: a prim, humorless, and inexpressive drip whose emotional palette consists mainly of exhaustion and irritation.
Carter’s pervasive authorial chilliness sometimes works — he deploys acidity beautifully to etch a viper’s nest of competitive academics — but it’s a problem in a novel whose major plot points include not just tensions on the quad but several murders, an adulterous affair, and a couple of chase scenes. Carter’s prose, brisk and confident when Garland is proffering an argument (and a chapter rarely passes without an extended, trenchant digression or two), becomes more tentative when delving into the personal. Surely some judicious line editing could have rendered an extended chess metaphor (never a great idea) more comprehensible, or at least spared us a description of eyes burning like ”twin coals,” or the rather overapt comment that a 3-year-old child is ”childlike.” And an ongoing theme of sexual jealousy that should serve as the narrative’s beating heart is instead examined with near-forensic dispassion.
Both novels — the mystery and the panorama — are more compelling for the way they repackage the sociocultural propositions their author has already retailed in a considerable body of nonfiction. It doesn’t take a close reading of ”Emperor” to discern that Garland seems most engaged when he’s dealing with the parry and thrust of debate, not unlike his creator. Carter himself is a virtuecrat (though more along the lines of Joe Lieberman than of Bill Bennett), a self-conscious nonideologue who has written pious treatises called ”Integrity” and ”Civility,” whose views on affirmative action and religion in public life have endeared him to some conservatives while flummoxing others who correctly note all of the positions he doesn’t share with them. He’s so proudly unclassifiable that, even masked as fiction, his taste for the contrarian — one character is an anti-choice lesbian feminist, another belongs to Liberals for Bush — threatens to become an ideology of its own. In a single entertaining paragraph, Carter can jump from a devastating portrayal of Garland’s neocon father, who pandered to ”Rightpacs” by telling them that ”the future of conservatism is black America!” to a brutal takedown of that idea, to a brutal takedown of people who would commit that takedown. The sparring partners he creates are smart, slippery, and unpredictable, as long as they’re talking. But in a novel this ambitious, great characters have to be more than just the sum of their ideas.