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The way it was before: Stephen Carter's first novel offers a compelling mystery
Books & Culture. 8.4 (July-August 2002): p30+. From General OneFile.
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The Emperor of Ocean Park

by Stephen L. Carter

KNOPF, 2002

672 pp.; $26.95

Stephen Carter appends to the end of The Emperor of Ocean Park a lengthier and more than customarily detailed version of the pro forma disclaimer: "any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." Carter may have special reasons for the lengthy precision of who and what his first novel is not about, since its superficial resemblance to what is generally known of his own life and career are nothing short of striking. To lay such suspicions to rest, he carefully details all the ways in which his first-person novel about a law professor of roughly his age, who teaches at a law school (which is not Yale, where he has happily taught for some 20 years), in Elm Harbor (which is not New Haven, a few shared ghosts notwithstanding), should not be read as a "roman a clef" about people, confirmations for judgeships, or any of the many other compelling features of our times--and his own life and writings--that enliven its pages. He is writing fiction, not autobiography. And, notwithstanding similarities that seem to defy credulity, the disclaimer ultimately rings true, largely because Carter has the wit to craft The Emperor of Ocean Park as a complex mystery, thereby avoiding the autobiographical temptation of many first novels.

Carter's novel builds on the experience of more than a decade of successful publication of a series of thoughtful books upon timely topics. Beginning with Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991), which does have autobiographical elements, Carter has published a succession of reflections upon the (less than heartening) state of our politics and culture and, especially, upon the appropriate role of religion in them: The Culture of Disbelief How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1993), The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process (1994), Integrity (1996), Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiqueue of Democracy (1998), and God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (2000).

Presumably Carter turned to fiction at least in part to capture the complexity and ambiguity of the human condition and to exploit the distance from didacticism that permits fiction to evoke the subtlety and elusiveness of truth. The Emperor of Ocean Park bears ample evidence of Carter's continuing preoccupation with the issues he explores in his nonfictional work, but frees him from the pressure to proselytize for a specific position. Similarly, while it cannot help but embody traces of his personal experience, it does so only in fragmentary and displaced form. Binding intellectual and personal experience into the constraints of a mystery novel permits Carter, the first-person narrator notwithstanding, to represent the world he knows with a convincing impersonality.

A brief prologue opens appropriately, if abruptly, with, "When my father finally died, he left the Redskins tickets to my brother, the house on Shepard Street to my sister, and the house on the' Vineyard to me." Three pages later, it closes with, "My father died at his desk. And, at first, only my sister and a few stoned callers to late-night radio shows believed he had been murdered." Between these two evocations of the father, the Judge, whose ghost haunts and directs the action of the novel, Carter briefly provides the reader with the names of his older brother, Addison, and sister Mariah as well as that of Abby, the younger, wilder sister, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in an out-of-control, fancy sports car, and whose death drove the Judge to drink and then to the quest for revenge that ultimately cost him confirmation to the Supreme Court and almost costs his younger son, Talcott--or Misha--his life.

Misha, the narrator, also notes the death of his mother, who therewith virtually disappears from the narrative until, in its concluding pages, he resolves to cultivate his memory of her, and he mentions, in passing, a discarded stuffed bear, which ultimately provides the answer to the main mystery: what were the "arrangements" that the Judge wanted Misha to find and take charge of after his death? For, according to Aunt Alma (second cousin or great-aunt to the Judge, who never could be bothered to keep such things straight), "You're the head of the family now, Talcott." And when Misha demurs that the role should be Addison's she insists, "No, no, no. Not Addison. You. That's the way your daddy wanted it." Alma then informs Misha that his father had plans for him and that he now has "the chance to make everything right," that he can "fix" the family. Misha doubts that "human beings can fix things like that," hut she counters that his "daddy will let you know what to do when the time comes."

The time does not come at once, and, before it does, we leam that Misha's smart, ambitious, beautiful, and probably unfaithful wife Kimmer is being considered for a federal judgeship; we witness his father's funeral; we meet some of the most significant players in the game, notably Abby's godfather, the noted and untouchable mobster Jack Ziegler, but also various members of "the darker nation" and their lighter counterparts, who have figured prominently in Misha's life either in Washington or in Elm Harbor. Misha rehearses the disastrous scenes of the Judge's failed confirmation hearings and the belief that they foundered on a former law clerk's testimony of having seen the Judge receive Jack Ziegler in his chambers.

"Uncle Jack," as the Garland children know him, haunts the book like a dark shadow. He appears at the funeral to assure Misha that no harm will come to him or his family, and later a nearly desperate Misha visits him at his cliffside house in Boulder, Colorado. As the plot unfolds, Misha gradually learns that Uncle Jack once did his father an important favor for which his father reciprocated in favors of another kind. Following the Judge's death, Uncle Jack cares only about recovering the "arrangements" that the Judge had reputedly made as insurance should harm befall him. As the designated head of the family, Misha stumbles into a shadowy chess game, the very rules of which elude him. But the game into which he is apparently drawn differs from that which one plays with a live opponent, for the Judge belonged to a "more exclusive fraternity, the chess problemist."

When the time does come, Misha learns of his father's final wishes from an almost incomprehensible note, which he finds on the upper floor of the Oak Bluffs house when he, Kimmer, and their son, Bentley, have just arrived to find the main floor trashed. The threat of violence, which increasingly pervades the novel, thus frames Misha's puzzled reading of his father's words, which, the note explains, he will only be reading if something has befallen his father. Apologizing for the complexity of the method of contact, the Judge wants Misha to

know this much: Angela's boyfriend, despite his deteriorating condition, is in possession of that which I want you. to know. You are in no danger, neither you nor your family, but you have little time. You are unlikely to be the only one who is searching for the arrangements that Angela's boyfriend alone can reveal. And you may not be the only one who knows who Angela's boyfriend is. Excelsior, my son! Excelsior! It begins!

The remaining 450 pages of the 650-page novel recount Misha's protracted, dangerous, and ultimately life-threatening quest to make sense of that note and fulfill its instructions. The large cast of characters and the convoluted and occasionally distracting twists of plot into which they lead Misha can occasionally confuse the reader, and they figure among the few signs of Carter's novice status as a novelist, But Carter weaves the-tightening web' of suspense and the intensifying aura of danger with sure professional skill. Only as the novel unfolds does the reader begin to understand that little is as it seems to be, and Carter encourages the deception, notably with his emphasis upon chess.

Indeed, chess so pervades the novel as to appear to contain the key to the location of the arrangements. It also provides a powerful, if subtle, image for the confrontation between black and white, which is reinforced by the Judge's obsession with a problem called the Double Excelsior--a "challenge for the sophisticated designer only," "a helpmate" in which black moves first and "the two sides cooperate to checkmate black."

In the end, the Double Excelsior does not help Misha solve the mystery of the arrangements. Rather, he recognizes the problem as the very plan of the mystery itself: His father's impossible dream had been to create the first Double Excelsior "with the black victorious." This scenario features "two lonely pawns, one white and one black, pathetic in their powerlessness ... matching each other, move for move," until each becomes a knight, and the final move checkmates the white king. "And the problem is not sound if there is any other option: a single line of play is all that is allowed."

The Judge never won the fame he coveted by publishing this Double Excelsior, but he left it behind him, "in life, setting in motion two pawns, one black, one white, matching moves, each stalking the other, one agonizing square at a time, until they reached the far side of their board on a storm-darkened beach in Oak Bluffs, where they faced each other for the final time." And there one died, leaving the other to give mate: "Just as my vengeful father wanted." For the prize--the arrangements--included information that could ruin the careers of countless powerful politicians and judges. Contemplating the possibilities, Misha thinks, "My father's cleverness suddenly terrifies me. The world destroyed my father, and I seem to be his chosen instrument to destroy it right back."

Carter divides The King of Ocean Beach into three parts, each entitled with some aspect of chess problems: I. Nowotny Interference ("a theme in which two Black pieces obstruct one another's ability to protect vital squares"); II. Turton Doubling ("a theme in which one White piece withdraws, allowing a second White piece to move in front of it, so that the two of them can attack the Black king together along the same line"); and III. Unprovided Flight ("a square to which the Black king can move without immediately suffering a checkmate.... Unprovided flight is considered a serious and perhaps fatal aesthetic defect in composition"). The first two headings capture the action of their respective sections; the third opens the possibility that Misha, having emerged victorious in the struggle over the arrangements, may, by defying his father's plan, prove the aesthetic defect in his father's composition, for "the difficulty with knights is that they often move ... eccentrically."

Although victorious, Misha does not emerge unscarred. He does, however, emerge with a renewed commitment to the cultivation of memory and to how much he wants to do: "to be a better Christian, to spend time with Morris Young [his pastor] and learn the meaning of the faith profess: to restore ties to his extended family and to hear stories of the days when the family was happy-- "the way it was before" -- notwithstanding his knowledge that it can never be that way again. He has reached a comfortable peace "with imperfect knowledge. Semiotics has taught me to live with ambiguity in my work; Kimmer has taught me to live with ambiguity in my home; and Morris Young is teaching me to live with ambiguity in my faith." Yet this acceptance of ambiguity does not lead Misha to embrace postmodern relativism: "That truth, even moral truth exists I have no doubt, for I am no relativist; but we weak, fallen humans will never perceive it except imperfectly, a faintly glowing presence toward which we creep through the mists o f reason, tradition, and faith."

The Emperor of Ocean Beach abounds with echoes of reason, tradition, and faith, although its philosophical concerns are distinctly contemporary. Carter's long-standing engagement with the place of faith in our postmodern world subtly permeates the novel, not merely by the open references to prayer, clergy, and passages of Scripture, hut by his willingness to recognize and name evil--and to wrestle with the challenges of love and forgiveness. And, quite delightfully, it abounds with pithy asides on a panoply of our present woes: students' lack of interest in learning, the self-serving nature of white liberals' defense of affirmative action, the many constituencies who take offense at the idea that children might actually benefit from "two parents who actually love each other" and "the traditional household," and more in the same spirit.

Carter's ubiquitous asides on the sorry state of our world jostle against his underlying faith in God's goodness and the potential for even fallen humans to exercise free will to choose good, our capacity for friendship and loyalty, and parents' capacity to love their children. The real test of this book, however, lies in its vitality as a novel--in the independent life of the characters, the plausibility of the dialogue, and the structure of the plot. The Emperor of Ocean Park passes with flying colors. No doubt, if Carter pursues this new turn in his vocation he will hone his craft, but for now. The Emperor of Ocean Park offers a gripping read--and much to ponder when the cover has been closed. What more could one ask?

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese teaches literature, history, and women's studies at Emory University. She is the editor of The Journal of The Historical Society.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. "The way it was before: Stephen Carter's first novel offers a compelling mystery." Books & Culture, July-Aug. 2002, p. 30+. General OneFile, Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A88577218