Stephen L. Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell professor of law at Yale University, has stepped through the looking glass, and the world is looking "curiouser and curiouser" from the other side.
The change in his life came home to him not when he earned a reputed $4.2 million in a two-book fiction deal with Knopf, nor even when the first novel of the pair, The Emperor of Ocean Park, debuted at No. 8 on the New York Times best-seller list last month--smack between list perennials Mary Higgins Clark and John Grisham. It hit him instead at a book signing in Oakland, Calif., the third stop on his 13-city book tour.
The proprietor asked Carter to sign a couple of copies for patrons who couldn't make it to his appearance, a request with which he was happy to comply. And then he saw the names he was being asked to inscribe.
"E. Lynn Harris and Terry McMillan!" Carter exclaims. "I just couldn't believe it. E. Lynn Harris and Terry McMillan. That writers of their caliber, with their track record of success would want signed copies of my book ... Well, it was just astonishing," he says.
Make no mistake, Carter is no stranger to publication. He publishes widely in law reviews and has written seven closely argued, critically acclaimed disquisitions on the nature of law, religion and society, including Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991), The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1993) and Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (1998). Moreover, Carter has tasted his share of the limelight. He's been a frequent guest on "Nightline," "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "Face the Nation." But the hoopla surrounding "the big summer book" phenomenon is clearly a step onto a new stage.
"The enthusiasm and even affection that has greeted the novel and the characters has really overwhelmed me," Carter says, adding, "My nonfiction has not always been greeted with enthusiasm--and certainly not with affection. People have been so wonderful, though, that I really get tongue-tied--and I'm not a guy who often finds himself at a loss for words."
Not that there haven't been critics. Linton Weeks in the Washington Post questioned Carter's "responsibility" on the grounds that he refused to admit that he and the novel's narrator were one and the same. David Gates of Newsweek called Carter "a first novelist manifestly without skills and apparently without girls."
But the raves have far outnumbered the critiques. Entertainment Weekly says Emperor is "poised to become the biggest book of the summer," while Publishers Weekly predicted it would become "the talk of the political in-crowd," and Kirkus Reviews called it "a melodrama with brains and heart to match its killer plot."
And melodrama is the operative word. The plot is far more John Grisham than John Edgar Wideman, and that's entirely as Carter intended.
"I didn't have any great ambitions. I didn't even know that I would finish it," he says. "All I wanted was to tell a pretty good story."
The figure at the center of the novel is a compelling one: the disgraced federal judge Oliver Garland, a distinguished Black conservative tapped for the Supreme Court who watches his nomination crumble amid lurid accusations over his relationship with rogue-CIA-agent-turned-crime-kingpin Jack Ziegler.
When Garland dies suddenly and mysteriously, his son--the prim and sullen yet still immensely appealing law professor, Talcott (Tal) Garland--is forced to answer questions swirling around the "arrangements" his father made in case of an untimely demise. These questions threaten his wife's chances at a federal judgeship and his own personal safety. Through betrayals, beatings and a devastating final confrontation, Tal learns that nothing and nobody in his world is what it or they seem.
One of the great pleasures of Emperor is that it takes us into a little-known world: the "darker nation" of the Black elite, with its Ivy League educations, summers on Martha's Vineyard, Boule memberships and Gold Coast real estate. Even more deliciously, the novel is full of riveting characters: Tal's wife Kimmer, desperately ambitious and serially unfaithful; his sister Mariah, obsessed with burnishing her father's reputation and proving that his death was in fact a murder. Even the minor characters--an elusive elder brother; a tragic, boozy cousin; a department full of two-faced colleagues; a sexy Black spy--are beautifully rendered.
"I'm actually much more interested in characters than plot. I didn't want to create any real heroes, but to focus on the interplay of their strengths and their weaknesses," Carter says. "What I was aiming at was for people to care about the characters and to find them plausible, and that seems to have worked. One of the very early readers of the book said, `I know these people.'"
Of course, Carter is aware that, for a scholar widely known for his religious and moral convictions, the story displays a perhaps unseemly attentiveness to sin.
"But that's the human condition, in the sense that we're a sinful people, right? And, indeed, it's actually rather important to, as we often don't, distinguish sin from evil," he says. Both are present in Talcott's world, and his errors and fumblings as he navigates that uncertain terrain have a serious moral purpose. The Emperor of Ocean Park is, at heart, "a cautionary tale about ambition. I was really interested in exploring the risks to a family when people get too ambitious."
Carter is already hard at work on the next novel. "I'm probably about halfway through in pages," he says, adding, "I'll keep writing novels as long as the Lord spares me, and as long as I have ideas I feel compelled to explore."
But novel writing faces serious competition from his first loves: his family, which includes wife Enola Aird and teen-agers Leah, 17, and Andrew, 14; and the law.
"The first Wednesday in September, I'm back to teaching a full load," he says, a prospect he appears to view with unalloyed pleasure. "I love teaching law--I love being a scholar."
Carter notes, "People have asked me, `Won't this (foray into novel writing) ruin your reputation as a scholar?'"
His answer is a simple one. "It's important for young professors to know that they should first secure their reputations before going off to write genre-busting works. But once you've secured that reputation, it provides a launching pad.
"I could not have started this novel if I didn't feel that I had done my academic work first."