Byline: David Gates
In Jorge Luis Borges's tale "The Book of Sand," a bibliophile acquires an alarming volume with an infinite number of pages and no reachable beginning or end: "Several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as if they grew from the very book." That's how it feels to read Stephen L. Carter's "The Emperor of Ocean Park," whose 657 pages could have been 257 if he'd just gotten on with his story of a law professor whose dead father, a sort of Robert Bork-Clarence Thomas-Abe Fortas composite, had a sinister secret. I've already forgotten not only the solutions to half the tedious mysteries Carter lugs around before unpacking them--who sent his hero a pair of chess pawns, which of his unmemorable characters sabotaged another's candidacy for a federal judgeship--but a lot of the mysteries themselves. The only one that's really stuck is a sort of meta-mystery: why would a publisher pay $4.2 million to a first novelist manifestly without skills and apparently without gifts?
More-accomplished and less-well-paid novelists--that adds up to a lot of novelists--will envy and resent Carter. They should be glad the genre still has enough mystique to make such a hotshot deign to give it a go. Carter, a Yale law professor, is already a star in academia, a media celebrity of sorts and the author of seven well-received nonfiction books, including "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," "Civility," "Integrity" and "The Culture of Disbelief." Like Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury or Stanley Crouch, he's a black public intellectual who dissents from leftist orthodoxy--though he hates to be called a conservative. He's a Christian, opposes abortion, supports school vouchers, has a near-unconditional belief in the sanctity of marriage and a generalized hell-in-a-handbasket grumpiness. All these ideas surface in sermonettes that stop his already lead-footed narrative dead every 40 pages or so. Sometimes they appear as "dialogue," sometimes as rant pure and simple, and once as a commencement address. True, Dickens was 10 times as intrusive, tendentious and cranky as Carter. But while Dickens could be a bore, he was never boring (to borrow W. H. Auden's useful distinction). Carter manages both.
"Ocean Park" is hung about with kick-me signs that betray the amateur. He has a repertoire of naively vivid synonyms for the simple, completely adequate "says" rivaling the word hoard of the late Mildred Benson (a.k.a. Carolyn Keene): "snaps," "smiles," "enthuses," "snarls," "burbles." He's addicted to cheesy foreshadowing ("Or so I foolishly imagine. But another disaster is in store"), sudden illuminations ("the final, astonishing piece of the puzzle clicks into place") and portentous one-line paragraphs.
The conversations between his characters take a maddeningly long time to accomplish their purpose, and sometimes he needs more than a page just to get them started. Actual sample: "I think we need to talk, Tal"... "Hello, Jerry"... "We need to talk"... "I don't think we have anything to talk about"... "We need to talk alone"... "No, Jerry, I can't just now. I'm busy. Maybe some other time"... "I just want to talk"... "I don't know how many different ways I can say that I don't want to talk to you"... "I have to go"... "What's the matter with you, Talcott, I just wanted to talk to you,"... "What is it, Jerry? What exactly do you want?"... "Here? You want to talk here?"
For a teensy fraction of Knopf's $4.2 million, they could have given Carter a week at Bread Loaf, where any competent teacher and a hit of peer pressure could have straightened some of this out. But "Ocean Park" has problems that no amount of cutting and editing could have cured. For one thing, not a lot actually happens besides conversations and cogitations in which clues are dropped, picked up and anatomized ("You don't mean..." "I do mean") and the puzzle pieces do their clicking. The first fisticuffs don't happen until page 323, the first gunshot comes on page 547, and no sex takes place ever. And except for his first-person narrator, a priggish professor at a Yale-like law school, Carter's characters barely exist. They have names, physical descriptions, sound-alike voices, nasty schemes and ugly secrets, but no selves, no life. When in a novel's climactic scene the villain's face "twists in a snarl"--a formula right out of Nancy Drew--you know it's the writer, not the hero, who's a goner.
So why did anyone pay more than $4 million for this book? Well, there might be a way to make, say, a Denzel Washington movie out of it and get some synergy going. Knopf may have seen Carter as an African-American Tom Wolfe, though his textureless account of the wealthy East Coast blacks who spend summers in Martha's Vineyard has none of Wolfe's social range and reportorial enterprise. Or maybe they simply thought he'd handle himself well on the talk shows. He'll need to.