Huffing Along

Lorin Stein

  • The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter
    Cape, 657 pp, £18.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 224 06284 0

Stephen L. Carter has written the kind of novel in which the bad guys say ‘very well’ when they mean ‘OK’; in which the hero calls a visit from old friends ‘a delightfully rambunctious affair’ and his rocky marriage a ‘tumultuous mutuality’; in which ‘homes’ are ‘spacious’, jealousy ‘flames afresh’ and eminent legal scholars spend dinner parties debating the existence of God. It is also the kind of novel – I am about to spoil the ending – in which the hero uncovers a vast conspiracy at the highest levels of government, resists the advances of a slinky assassin, faces down a gun-toting Supreme Court judge, and ends up getting promoted. The Emperor of Ocean Park is, in other words, an ‘airplane book’, as opposed to a ‘beach read’: it’s trash, but it’s Business Class trash, relentlessly high-toned, tastefully furnished and driven by a Rube Goldberg-like love of complication, minus the suspense.

American reviewers, partly out of deference to Carter’s serious polemics on race, religion and American politics, have tended to treat The Emperor of Ocean Park as a serious novel, which it is not; or as a thriller, which is simply unfair. When an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court looms up out of a dark and stormy night, semi-automatic at the ready, and tells the hero, ‘don’t play games with me . . . I know your father hid something in the teddy bear,’ you should be able to look back at what has already happened, slap your forehead, and think: ‘Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? The judge has been after the teddy bear all along!’ That’s the thrill. But when anything remotely eventful takes place in The Emperor of Ocean Park, you will have either thought of it already or you could never have thought of it, because like that teddy bear, it’s utterly cuckoo bananas.

The murder-mystery plot – which pits the hero against a wing of the FBI with near-double-O dispensation, as well as a Washington super-lawyer, the pistol-packing Supreme Court judge, an arms-smuggling, ex-CIA villain and a small platoon of hit-men – turns on an elaborate chess riddle in which the black pieces stand for black men and the white pieces for white men. The riddle is set forth in a letter addressed to the hero from his dead father and leads to an old cemetery with a secret passage that only the hero and his father know about; the hero follows a trail of chess pawns and notes (‘KEEP LOOKING’); there’s a moonlight dig for what might be buried treasure, and another nocturnal search, by flashlight, through a scary old attic; a prominent Episcopalian priest gets murdered and turns out, after the fact, to have been addicted to crack cocaine; the hero is beaten up and shot every so often and, during one especially close call, escapes with his life thanks to a fortuitous falling chimney: in terms of mise en scène and all-round plausibility, The Emperor of Ocean Park lies somewhere south of John Grisham and north of Nancy Drew. It is long-winded, shoddily put together and riddled with repetitions and small inconsistencies: characters are introduced twice, facts stated and restated as if for the first time; a pool table appears mid-scene (as if from an earlier draft) in a sitting-room that has been described as ‘tiny’. These are little things, but in aggregate they confirm the sense that Carter’s novel, for which his publishers paid a record-breaking advance, is being sold on the strength of its author’s name – and the fact of that advance – and is meant only in a secondary way to be read.

Most of the novel’s reviewers – and it has been reviewed by everyone from Grisham himself, on Good Morning America, to K. Anthony Appiah in the New York Review of Books – have politely overlooked the goofiness of the plot and praised the novel, which is set largely in the well-to-do black neighbourhoods of Washington, D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard, as a piece of groundbreaking social realism. ‘In Stephen Carter the black upper class has found its Dreiser,’ Ward Just wrote in the New York Times Book Review. In fact, although Carter shares his narrator’s job as a law professor – Carter teaches at Yale Law School – as well as his home-town and class background, and so, as might be expected, gets the street names, schools, job descriptions and character types right, he has no special talent as an observer of manners, and his novel has none of the detachment that one associates with Dreiser. Once you strip away the preposterous whodunnit, what’s left is just the kind of thing Dreiser refused to write: a saccharine morality tale about a good-hearted man and an evil woman.

The tale begins, like any murder mystery, with a suspicious death. The corpse belongs to Oliver Garland, a stern, stoical old widower known even to his family as ‘the Judge’. Garland was a brilliant legal scholar and, it soon transpires, a prominent black conservative gone bad. He is the emperor of the novel’s title (Ocean Park is a neighbourhood in Oak Bluffs, the black summer colony in Martha’s Vineyard) and his son Talcott, known in the family as ‘Misha’, is the inheritor of his problematic mantle. The Garlands are, in Talcott’s words, an ‘old family’: they trace their lineage back to ancestors who ‘were free and made a living when most members of the darker nation were in chains’. They are well off, and even in the highest reaches of Washington’s black bourgeoisie the Garland men are noted for their reserve, outward propriety and aristocratic self-regard. Talcott has spent his life living up to the Garland ideal and is expected to redeem the Garland family name. He followed his father into the law and teaches at their shared alma mater, Elm Harbor (a lightly fictionalised Yale Law School). Unlike his philandering brother, or his sister, who married a white man, Talcott has married into his own class and stayed married – no thanks to his wife, Kimberly, or ‘Kimmer’, a corporate lawyer whose ultimate aim is to enter the Federal Court of Appeals.

‘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,’ Talcott muses near the climax of the novel, ‘but priorities are funny that way.’ The Garland marriage is the real subject of The Emperor of Ocean Park. It fills page after page; the mystery surrounding the Judge’s death slips Carter’s (and Talcott’s) mind for chapters at a time. After the suspicion of foul play is first raised, it takes 17 pages for Talcott to mention it again (‘murdered, I remind myself’), and another 57 pages for the murder to be revisited. By comparison, Carter’s account of Talcott’s marital troubles is lively and full of moral outrage. Nothing really happens in the marriage, it teeters and then falls apart, but it is the prism through which Carter reveals most about Talcott, and through which his character is seen to develop.

Kimmer never changes. She is too busy being a symbol of the decline of family values in America today: a cold, grasping, backbiting, horny, materialistic bitch. Kimmer’s deep vulgarity is clear from the start, when she phones Talcott with the news that she may be nominated to the Federal bench:

‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ burbles my wife of nearly nine years on what will shortly become one of the saddest days of mine.

‘I see,’ I answer, my tone conveying my hurt.

‘Oh, Misha, grow up. I’m not comparing it with marrying you.’ A pause. ‘Or with having a baby,’ she adds as a footnote.

‘I know; I understand.’

Talcott hates his wife, and he wants us to hate her, too. At the same time he wants us to think he loves her. The consequence is a self-consciously good character who never really says what he means: ‘to my desire for a large family, she answers correctly that she, not I, must carry the baby – except that Kimmer always says fetus, and is at pains to make everybody else say it too’ (Kimmer is pro-choice – but Talcott can live with that). ‘Kimmer has always cultivated the press and is frequently quoted in the local newspaper, the Clarion, and, now and then, in the Times. I have a different attitude toward journalists’ (Kimmer is a media-whore – but different strokes for different folks). Kimmer refuses to go to church. Kimmer hates his family. Kimmer makes ‘uncalled-for’ jokes about his marriage vows. Kimmer tells him to drop his investigation into the Judge’s death because it embarrasses her. Kimmer’s infidelity has made him impotent – or at least that’s how I read his admission that ‘my fears have done as much as her conduct to sour the sweetest part of our marriage.’ Kimmer spends much less time than Talcott with Bentley, their three-and-a-half-year-old son, but ‘one of the great advantages of the academic life is that it is possible to take a morning off for little things like loving a child.’ So who’s complaining? To save money, Kimmer buys Bentley clothes three sizes too big, but insists on keeping the brand new BMW they can’t afford (Talcott is happy to ‘huff along in my boring but reliable Camry’). Maybe it’s her fault that Bentley is slow to talk, and almost died during labour, but Talcott forgives even this: ‘to this day, my wife believes the condition was brought on by her continuing to drink . . . if her fears are true, then I must share the blame, not because I am a drinker – I am not – but because I have never been strong where Kimmer is concerned.’

Carter spends the first half of the novel establishing Kimmer as a problem; because she cheated on her first husband with Talcott, she is portrayed as a moral contaminant to her repentant and upright spouse. It isn’t always easy to make us root for the good guy, however. When Kimmer tells Talcott to hurry up because she has to ‘piss’, and he snaps, ‘No need to be vulgar,’ some readers will feel a twinge of sympathy for her, just because she’s married to him. When Talcott says the nice old man next door is ‘fond of saying that nobody ever lay on this deathbed wishing he had spent a few more hours at work and a few less with the kids,’ then tartly adds that Kimmer thinks the neighbours are interfering busybodies, we may see her point. Carter has Talcott harp on his own perceived shortcomings as a husband, but they are matters of lifestyle rather than of character. Talcott calls himself ‘boring’, ‘dull’, ‘a nerd’ and ‘old-fashioned’, but this surely misses the point: he is a great big phony.

The marriage shows us Talcott a little too up-close; it also reveals the self-serving piety that makes this novel so unbearable in its later stretches. Roughly halfway through, Talcott meets with his Christian counsellor. ‘If your wife is straying,’ the minister tells him,

the time will come when it is appropriate to deal with her behaviour. For the moment, however, I wish to ask of you a simple favour: that you will, until the next time we meet, treat Kimberly as you would want to be treated. You do remember the Golden Rule? Good . . . Kimberly is your wife, Talcott, not a suspect in some crime. Your job is not to catch her in lies. Your job is not to prove you are better than she is. Your job is to love her as best you can. Scripture tells us that the husband is head of the wife, but we are also warned that the headship is of a special kind: ‘as Christ is the head of the church’. And how does Christ love his church, Talcott? Unquestioningly. Forgivingly. And sacrificially. That is the responsibility of the husband, Talcott, especially when you do not actually know that your wife has done you wrong.

What this means is that for the next three hundred or so pages Talcott can play the martyr and leave Kimmer to hoist herself with her own petard; and in the end – as Carter darkly implies with those ‘the time will come’s and ‘especially when you do not actually know’s – Talcott will be liberated from this loathsome marriage and it will not be his fault. It’s more of the same deck-stacking, but this homily marks a shift in the domestic side of the novel, away from Carter’s one sustained attempt to tell a believable story, towards an effort to impose, from without, his own treacly Sunday school morality on his characters’ inner lives.

Christianity has not always been seen as an impediment to the writer of realistic fiction. But Carter has told one interviewer that, as a Christian, he found it impossible to let his characters take the Lord’s name in vain; he would hesitate to write about sex, he added, even if he thought it was in his power. This remark suggests an idea of the novel that is peculiarly American and very much of our moment, closer to the evangelical fiction that climbs the bestseller lists today than to The Brothers Karamazov or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood or Denis Johnson’s Angels. According to this idea, the Christian novelist must maintain his innocence above all else, and must reward Christian behaviour in a simple way that will be accessible to his presumably simple readers. So, as Talcott frees himself from his attachment to Kimmer and ties up the loose ends surrounding his father’s death, he is suffused with a Christian love that has no basis in his character and offers no genuine response to the world around him. Far from home, fearing that Kimmer and Bentley may be in danger, Talcott calls the understaffed Elm Harbor police; he is told that there are no patrol cars free to check on his house, and responds: ‘I groan at the thought of what havoc income inequalities can wreak on real lives.’ Now, in the mouth of a scared father, this is implausible: it is not novel-writing so much as speechmaking, which expects only the drowsy, provisional half-acceptance of its listener. And that tone is the rule in the last hundred pages of the book. Talcott volunteers at a soup kitchen, for example: ‘I grow fond of the women I serve. I know that few of them will see another decade, but I begin to admire their feistiness in the face of life’s many disasters, their cleverness in foraging around the edges of the welfare state for the benefit of their children, and, in many, their surprisingly strong faith.’ Is he talking about women or dogs? There is no genuine admiration here; only Talcott, admiring the sound of his own voice, and his Christian love for his fellow man.

One of Carter’s many difficulties is that there is no distance between him and Talcott. I don’t mean that the pair share biographical similarities. I mean that Carter can’t let Talcott sin, really sin, any more than he can let him swear. Or to put it differently, Carter can’t let us see Talcott in a light that he wouldn’t want to be seen in. That’s why, every time Talcott gets down on his knees and prays, it seems distasteful, like watching somebody smile into a mirror.

The best writing in the book, the only writing in it that rings true, comes at moments when Talcott feels enraged by the smugness and condescension of the white people around him (a student, a colleague, a policeman) and sees red. Here character, diction and motive come together, and all the preciousness and self-flattery drop away. Every reviewer has praised these moments, although they take up no more than a few pages altogether and have very little to do with the story at hand. They are not edifying, they can’t be tidily resolved, they are un-Christian and unafraid – and they locate a secret hostility in America between upper-class blacks and whites (or, to use Carter’s portentous, unsupported circumlocution, the ‘darker’ and ‘paler nations’). The rest of the time, there is no nation of any colour here because there are no real people here. The novel exists to exalt its storyteller and, by the end, even he turns out to be a pawn.