Emperor of Ocean Park (Carter)

The Emperor of Ocean Park 
Stephen L. Carter, 2002
Knopf Doubleday
657 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307279934

The Emperor of Ocean Park is set in two privileged worlds: the upper crust African American society of the eastern seaboard—old families who summer on Martha's Vineyard—and the inner circle of an Ivy League law school. It is the story of a complex family with a single, seductive link to the shadowlands of crime.

The Emperor of the title, Judge Oliver Garland, has just died, suddenly. A brilliant legal mind, conservative and famously controversial, Judge Garland made more enemies than friends. Many years before, he'd a earned a judge's highest prize: a Supreme Court nomination. But in a scene of bitter humiliation, televised across the country, his nomination collapsed in scandal. The humbling defeat became a private agony, one from which he never recovered."

But now the judge's death raises more questions—and it seems to be leading to a second, even more terrible scandal. Could Oliver Garland have been murdered? He has left a strange message for his son Talcott, a professor of law at a great university, entrusting him with "the arrangements"—a mysterious puzzle that only Tal can unlock, and only by unearthing the ambiguities of his father's past. When another man is found dead, and then another, Talcott—wry, straight-arrow, almost too self-aware to be a man of action—must risk his career, his marriage, and even his life, following the clues his father left him. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—October 26, 1954
Where—Washington, D.C., USA
Education—B.A. Stanford University; J.D., Yale Law School
Currently—New Haven, Connecticut

Stephen L. Carter has helped shape the national debate on issues ranging from the role of religion in American political culture to the impact of integrity and civility on our daily lives. The New York Times has called him one of the nation's leading public intellectuals.

Born in Washington, D.C., Stephen L. Carter studied law at Yale University and went on to serve as a law clerk, first on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and later for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In 1982 he joined the faculty at Yale, where he is now William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law. His critically acclaimed nonfiction books on subjects including affirmative action, the judicial confirmation process, and the place of religion in our legal and political cultures have earned Carter fans among luminaries as diverse as William F. Buckley, Anna Quindlen, and former President Bill Clinton.

Carter's first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, draws heavily on the author's familiarity with the law and the world of highly placed judges, but he didn't begin by attempting to write a "judicial" thriller— Carter earlier tried the character of Judge Garland out as a White House aide, and also as a professor like himself. He has said that in the end "only the judicial role really fit."

With Emperor Carter has moved (for the moment) from writing nonfiction to fiction—a shift which he downplays by noting "I have always viewed writing as a craft." But, while he has also indicated that another novel like this one is in the works, he sees himself as "principally a legal scholar and law professor" and plans to continue publishing nonfiction as well.

New England White, Carter's second novel, published in 2008, takes up the story of two secondary characters from The Emperor of Ocean Park, LeMaster and Julia Carlyle.

From a Barnes & Noble interview:

• An avid chess player, Stephen L. Carter is a life member of the United States Chess Federation. Although he says he plays less now than he once did, he still plays online through the Internet Chess Club. For The Emperor of Ocean Park, Professor Carter says he had to learn about "the world of the chess problemist, where composers work for months or years to set up challenging positions for others to solve."

• Carter lives with his wife, Enola Aird, and their two children, near New Haven, Connecticut.

When asked what books most influenced his career as a writer or scholar, her is what he said:

I would have to say the Bible, especially as I began to read theology and philosophy in a serious way. The Bible has changed my life.

Other favorite books include:

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, for the sheer beauty of the prose and the seamless integration of metaphor into the story. Rarely have I encountered such remarkable characterizations and settings. And, oh, how deft her touch with dialogue!

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Simply put, one of the greatest novels ever written in English. Bringing an era to life and offering a withering critique without preaching at us. Marvelous characters, engaging story, and in so small a package.

James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. A novel of immense passion and power, taking seriously the Christianity of its characters but presenting them as complex and flawed as he cuts back and forth across their stories. Just stunning. I am not sure I have read a finer inter-generational story.

E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Whether you think it is just a good read or, as some think, a novel-length metaphor for the '60s, a wonderfully evocative tale of a hundred years back, set in a time of great social flux, told in a prose so compelling that it is difficult to find a place to stop for breath.

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I read this in college, before it became a standard text for high schoolers, and its power nearly wore me out. No finer story, in my experience, of the conflict between traditional society and the modern world, with the possible exceptions of two others I rather like: Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, and, more recently, The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

George Orwell's 1984. I have never read another novel that provides more food for thought, or more text for discussion. And as scary as they come.

Stephen King's Christine. Few people would probably rank this as King’s best, but I think that it creates as fully realized an adolescent world as one is likely to find in popular fiction. One of the few contemporary novels I find worth going back to again and again to learn more.

John le Carré's Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—the two modern masterpieces of the espionage genre. I suppose I could add some mystery writers, such as Sue Grafton and Agatha Christie. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
A contrived, implausible and needlessly baroque melodrama, which reads as if it were written for serial publication, with nearly every chapter ending on a hokey cliffhanger.
New York Times - Michiko Katutani

Taking a sabbatical from penning didactic nonfiction about America's cultural decline, Carter has written a mammoth debut novel about upper-class African-American society that doubles as a legal thriller. The setup is suspiciously Grishamesque: Judge Oliver Garland, an iconic black conservative famous for his outspoken opinions, a long list of enemies and his near-appointment to the Supreme Court, dies of a heart attack. Or does he? Soon after Oliver's death, his son Talcott, a cuckolded law professor who has spent his life trying to get out of his father's shadow, begins to receive strange threats. Exactly who's making the threats (and why) is all very hush-hush, but whispers of dark family secrets and "arrangements" that have been left by Oliver keep everyone jumpy and conspiracy-happy. The book's subject, an often-ignored segment of American society, is a welcome departure. However, the author is prone to lectures on race relations and the state of academe, and the story suffers from his tin ear for dialogue and portentous tone.
Book Magazine

Carter, a Yale law professor and distinguished conservative African-American intellectual known for his nonfiction (The Culture of Disbelief), has written a first-rate legal thriller guaranteed to broaden his audience. The narrator, Talcott Garland, is a law professor at Elm Harbor University whose occasional Carteresque editorializing about politics and justice are saved from didacticism by his abiding existential loneliness. The mystery at the heart of the novel stems from Tal's father's disgrace: Judge Oliver Garland (a Robert Bork meets Clarence Thomas type) was nominated by Ronald Reagan for a Supreme Court seat, but brought down in the Senate hearings when it was revealed that he had a friendship with Jack Ziegler, a wild-card former CIA agent now rumored to be an organized crime kingpin. When the judge dies of what looks like a heart attack and Ziegler turns up at his funeral, Tal is initiated into a quest to uncover mysterious "arrangements" his father made in the event of his untimely demise. Various shady entities observe Tal chasing down the judge's clues, which include a cryptic note ("you have little time....Excelsior! It begins!") and derive from chess strategy. Meanwhile, Talcott is going through a rough patch: his wife, Kimmer, a high-powered attorney, is probably cheating on him, his Elm Harbor law school colleagues are suspicious of him and a fake FBI man is following him around. As Talcott digs deeper, he uncovers a vein of corruption that runs all the way to the top, and his own life becomes threatened. This thriller, which touches electrically on our sexual, racial and religious anxieties, will be the talk of the political in-crowd this summer.
Publishers Weekly

A Yale law professor and author of seven nonfiction books of legal and political philosophy, Carter (The Culture of Disbelief) here turns his hand to fiction. When Judge Garland dies, his son Talcott tries to piece together his father's secret life and make sense of "the arrangements," his father's mysterious final requests. At least that's what Tal thinks he's doing. Suddenly, this law professor a failure at marriage and distracted father finds himself caught in an invisible net of vague clues about the judge's arrangements, delivered in hushed voices by a bewildering cast of extended family, so-called friends, Mafia "uncles," and thugs disguised as FBI agents. Carter moves the unwitting professor inch by painful inch toward truth and psychological disintegration as he learns about his father's corruption and also loses his wife. Suspense falls flat, however, as the author delivers description for action and philosophy rather than plot. The book is overlong and reads more like a composite view of Carter's ideology than the legal thriller it could have been. Those who enjoy a leisurely pace to their suspense and subscribe to Carter's philosophy of conservatism will enjoy it. The rest will stick with Grisham, Martini, and Margolin. —Jennifer Baker, Seattle, Or.
Library Journal

This sleek, immensely readable first novel by Yale law professor Carter, author of such provocative nonfiction as The Culture of Disbelief and God's Name in Vain, is custom-designed for the kind of commercial success enjoyed by John Grisham's The Firm. The complicated fun begins with the death of federal Judge Oliver Garland, a black conservative and former Reagan appointee to the Supreme Court-a nomination that fell through when a scandal linked Garland to "underground investment banker" Jack Ziegler, whose shadowy figure initiates the subsequent intrigues into which Garland's son Talcott (a prim law prof, and Carter's narrator) is swept up. Talcott's fiery sister Mariah insists that their father (a presumable suicide) was murdered. Initially unpersuaded, Talcott gradually becomes a believer as he's alternately stroked and betrayed by various colleagues and pols, stalked, shot at, and thunderstruck by what he learns regarding the (earlier) death of his sister Abigail in a hit-and-run accident, the Judge's mingled grief and fury thereafter, and the hidden agenda of Talcott's forceful wife "Kimmer" (Kimberly), an attorney hustling for her own appointment to the federal bench. Almost everybody is other than what he or she seems, including Talcott's feckless older brother Addison, NBA pro-turned law student Lionel Eldridge, liberal Justice Wallace Wainwright, an ebullient mystery woman named Maxine, and urbane black careerist Lemaster Carlyle. Prominent among the crucial narrative elements are a missing set of "arrangements" supposedly written by Judge Garland, a reputed hit man posing as an FBI agent, baffling references to (the unknown) "Angela's boyfriend," a chess problem known as "Double Excelsior," and several misheard scraps of information. Carter connects all this irresistible hugger-mugger with great skill, building toward a series of staggered climaxes that explode over the final 150 pages. Few readers will refrain from racing excitedly through them. A melodrama with brains and heart to match its killer plot.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. How does The Emperor of Ocean Park differ from more conventional mysteries? In what ways is the narrator, Talcott Garland, unlike his counterparts—men like Philip Marlow, Sam Spade, and their descendants—in the prototypical mystery?

2. How does Carter build and sustain suspense throughout the novel? What are the several mysteries Talcott is trying to solve? What discoveries does he make—about his father, his wife, his brother, Jack Ziegler, Justice Wainwright, and others—over the course of the novel? What effect do these discoveries have on him?

3. The issue of race is a recurrent theme in The Emperor of Ocean Park. What is Talcott’s attitude toward race? In what instances is he subject to racial stereotyping? What observations does he make about the white liberal racism he encounters on campus? What racial hypocrisies does he see in his fellow blacks?

4. At the Judge’s funeral, Aunt Alma cryptically tells Talcott that he has “the chance to make everything right.... You can fix it.... But your daddy will let you know what to do when the time comes” [p. 24]. Like Hamlet, Talcott is charged by his father, beyond the grave, to set things right. In what other ways is Talcott a Hamlet-like character? In what ways must he both fulfill and transcend his father’s demands?

5. What makes Jack Ziegler such a frightening character? In what ways is he more than a mere villain? In what sense is he, as Talcott says, the “author” of the Garland family’s misery?

6. Talcott’s cousin Sally tells him: “You think you’re so different from Uncle Oliver, but you’re just like him. In some good ways, sure, but in some of the worst ways, too. You look down your nose at people you think are your moral inferiors. People like your brother. People like me” [p. 270]. Is she right? In what other ways is Talcott like his father? How is he different from him?

7. What role do the chess problems play in the novel? How do they lead Talcott to uncover his father’s “arrangements”? How are they related to issues of race and power? In what sense is Talcott himself a pawn?

8. When a man calls his house asking for his wife, Talcott thinks: “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, but priorities are funny that way” [p. 453]. In what ways is the story of Talcott and Kimmer’s failing marriage—and the larger story of the complex relations in the Garland family—more important than the murder mystery? How are his marital problems related to the mystery he is trying to solve?

9. The Emperor of Ocean Park describes a social milieu rarely seen in American fiction: the black middle class. What does the novel tell us about the highly successful people who make up this class? How are they different from African Americans more commonly encountered in modern and contemporary fiction?

10. Late in the novel, “a wave of fatalism” sweeps over Talcott and he wonders “whether I could have done anything differently, or if, once the Judge died, setting his awful plan in motion, and Jack Ziegler showed up demanding to know the arrangements, everything else was fixed. Whether my marriage, even, was doomed from the day of the funeral” [p. 533]. Is the story fated to end as it does or could Talcott have changed its outcome? What might he have done differently?

11. The Emperor of Ocean Park is not merely a thriller, but also an extended critique of American culture, commenting on issues of family, religion, law, education, race, marriage, wealth, and politics. What do the frequent philosophical digressions add to the novel? What beliefs and values does Talcott Garland try to live by?

12. During a dinner-table argument, Dr. Young asserts that Satan “always attacks us in the same ways.... He attacks us with sexual desire and other temptations that distract the body. He attacks us with drink and drugs and other temptations that addle the brain. He attacks us with racial hatred and love of money and other temptations that distort the soul” [p. 346]. How does this perspective illuminate the behavior of the major characters in the novel? Who gives in to the temptations that Dr. Young describes in this speech? Who resists them?

13. How do Talcott’s relationships with his family—with his father, his sister, his brother, his wife, and his son—change over the course of the novel?

14. When Talcott retells the story of how he and his future wife had gotten out of the Burial Ground by crawling through a drainage tunnel, he writes: “Some metaphors need no interpretation” [p. 515]. Is the meaning of this metaphor obvious? How should the escape from the cemetery be interpreted? How is the Burial Ground itself important to the novel’s plot?

15. As the Judge’s secret life is revealed, Dana Worth, a woman who had always admired Oliver Garland, tells Talcott: “I don’t want to say he was evil...but he wasn’t just deluded, either” [p. 615]. How should the Judge finally be judged? What drove him to do what he did? Are his actions understandable? Forgivable?

16. When he delivers the eulogy at Theo Mountain’s funeral, Talcott breaks down weeping. “I suppose people think I was crying over Theo. Maybe I was, a little. But, mainly, I was crying over all the good things that will never be again, and the way the Lord, when you least expect it, forces you to grow up” [p. 620]. What are the “good things” Talcott mourns the loss of here? In what ways has the Lord forced him to “grow up”? How have the events of the novel changed him?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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