The Emperor of Ocean Park

Stephen Carter has been on my radar ever since I read a review of New England White a few years ago; it sat on my Amazon wish list for a while mostly as a placeholder for Carter. So a few weeks ago I was looking for some new fiction (to me at least) and I decided on The Emperor of Ocean Park rather than New England White. You know me, I’ll choose the route of reading an author in chronological order if given the choice (The Emperor of Ocean Park is Carter’s first book).

It’s a mystery/thriller with a running commentary on race, class, and politics. The main character is Talcott Garland, a black law professor at a fictional northeastern university who is trying to understand the circumstances of his father’s death. His father was a famous conservative judge who was disgraced years ago during confirmation hearings for Reagan’s supreme court and finished out his life as a legal consultant of sorts. Garland is insecure but I found him highly likable. His internal struggles with black and white, liberal and conservative, and rich and poor make things interesting and add a lot of character depth. Throw in some wife problems and some work problems and you have a very complicated guy. You also have plenty of opportunity for some family carnage, which I love.

And I haven’t mentioned anything of the mystery, a great common man forced to become a detective style of thriller. This thriller came along at the right time. I was feeling a little down because I wasn’t sure if I could match the thrill-level that I experienced this year during TGWTDT (it has polluted me temporarily I think). But Carter tossed a story at me that I couldn’t put down; one that I read during family get-togethers instead of talking with other humans; one that I read every night for a few weeks without the threat of falling asleep. It always feels good to have another author that I’m damn sure I’ll like every word he puts on paper.

Carter only has four works of fiction. He released this in 2002, then took a break from fiction for five years. Since then he has released one book a year for the three years from 2007 to 2009. I’ll get to these. Here is the question: Since I know I’m going to read them, should I just buy them and put them in my library? No, probably not. That backlog is too much pressure, I’d rather be JIT. I really loved it, but I feel like I need to space them out because what if he stops at four?

I loved how he hid the plot points from me to build up the excitement without leaving me frustrated. Then he delivered the reveal with a deadpan style that I haven’t felt in other thrillers. His style is deliberate and he fills space with a fair amount of meandering diatribes (redundant?) on life, so it may feel slow to some, but not to me. Here’s an example of a meandering diatribe, check this out:

THE FOLLOWING TUESDAY, twelve days after the death of my father, I return to my dreary classroom, populated, it often seems, by undereducated but deeply committed Phi Beta Kappa ideologues—leftists who believe in class warfare but have never opened Das Kapital and certainly have never perused Werner Sombart, hard-line capitalists who accept the inerrancy of the invisible hand but have never studied Adam Smith, third-generation feminists who know that sex roles are a trap but have never read Betty Friedan, social Darwinists who propose leaving the poor to sink or swim but have never heard of Herbert Spencer or William Sumner’s essay on The Challenge of Facts, black separatists who mutter bleakly about institutional racism but are unaware of the work of Carmichael and Hamilton, who invented the term—all of them our students, all of them hopelessly young and hopelessly smart and thus hopelessly sure they alone are right, and nearly all of whom, whatever their espoused differences, will soon be espoused to huge corporate law firms, massive profit factories where they will bill clients at ridiculous rates for two thousand hours of work every year, quickly earning twice as much money as the best of their teachers, and at half the age, sacrificing all on the altar of career, moving relentlessly upward, as ideology and family life collapse equally around them, and at last arriving, a decade or two later, cynical and bitter, at their cherished career goals, partnerships, professorships, judgeships, whatever kind of ships they dream of sailing, and then looking around at the angry, empty waters and realizing that they have arrived with nothing, absolutely nothing, and wondering what to do with the rest of their wretched lives. (Kindle loc. 2,095)

That, my friends, is all one sentence. Below is another passage I want to remember:

… I have long been comfortable living without perfect 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. 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 of reason, tradition, and faith. So much to know, so little time. (Kindle loc. 13,242)

These are the musings of the main character during his quest for answers surrounding his father’s death. All this fits in nicely with the mystery at hand and really sucked me in. What a great year of reading it has been, and still a few books to go. Back to some nonfiction for now.