MAXWELL:  Glimpse into black upper crust

6/9/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Correction (6/16/02): In a review of Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter, the name of playwright Eugene O’Neill was misspelled.


By Stephen L. Carter

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

I have read two major works about black people with the word “emperor” in their titles. The first, The Emperor Jones, the 1920 play by Eugene O’Neal, I was forced to read as an undergraduate. The second is The Emperor of Ocean Park, the just-published debut novel by Stephen L. Carter.

Did Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, read O’Neal’s classic before writing his 657-page tome? I do not know. What I do know is that each work’s major figure fancies himself as being royalty _ an emperor _ and therein lies the source of their destruction. Of course, Carter may not have had The Emperor Jones in mind, and his use of the term could be coincidence.

But the two works do have some interesting parallels.

The location of O’Neal’s play is an island in the West Indies, and the central character is Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter, who has made himself a dictatorial emperor. As the action opens, the natives have organized a rebellion, and Jones must run for his life through the jungle with the sounds of drums all around.

Jones quickly becomes trapped by his own terror and devolves on the evolutionary chain. Participating in a slave auction, he sinks deeper into primitivity. In the end, the natives kill their faux emperor with the very silver bullets said to be required to kill royalty.

Now for the plot of Stephen Carter’s first novel.

Although many scenes in The Emperor of Ocean Park take place in Washington, D.C., and at an Ivy League law school that resembles Yale, the core scenes of Carter’s novel also take place on an island: Martha’s Vineyard. The novel even takes its name from the Martha’s Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs, where wealthy blacks have summered and lived year-round for many decades.

In Carter’s novel, the emperor _ the most distinguished African-American on the island _ is Oliver Garland, the paterfamilias of the black elite Garland clan. His island is also a jungle, not a steamy, insect-infested place overrun by wild animals, but one of human savagery, a place overrun with people from high-powered Northeast law firms and law schools and nominees and appointees of U.S. federal courts. In this jungle, etiquette and protocol _ not brute force _ control behavior and make or break careers and lives.

Oliver Garland is a distinguished judge, a black Republican conservative, whose nomination to the Supreme Court during the 1980s is derailed by scandal. Despite the scandal, however, the judge’s reputation remains salable, and he becomes a well-paid right-wing ideologue for white audiences.

Ocean Park is narrated by Oliver’s son Talcott who, after the death of his father, is ushered into a world of introspection, intrigue, hypocrisy, failed relationships, fear, adultery and unhappiness. He is obsessed with his father’s life and career and the mystery surrounding his death, ostensibly from a heart attack. In the end, like O’Neil, Carter hands his emperor his own means of death. Oliver Garland’s silver bullet turns out to be his own celebrated hubris, the kind that afflicts many elite black conservatives.

As similar as they are, however, the tales of the two faux emperors do diverge in one important respect. I do not believe that Carter sets out to portray Oliver Garland ironically, although he does so when he gives him the lofty title of emperor. O’Neal, on the other hand, has deliberately created a black buffoon in Brutus Jones.

Ocean Park will be an education for whites, along with blacks, unfamiliar with the black upper crust. In this world, race is the monster spoken of behind closed doors. Money, position and power draw the boundaries. Even when race is a palpable hindrance to upward mobility, as is the case with Tal’s wife’s chances of becoming a judge, its influence is downplayed. Much of what happened to Tal’s father had to do with race, but Tal _ himself a conservative _ smudges this reality.

Part thriller and part social commentary, The Emperor of Ocean Park is far too long, haltingly paced and lumpy. Some of the subplots do not advance the search for who or what really killed Judge Garland. The novel has some great scenes, many purple passages, characters galore (oh, the number of characters) and a prose style that is at once sedate and relatively easy to read.

But Carter, the unabashed narrator, is intrusive. Too often, when characters obviously want to think and speak for themselves as individuals, Carter gets in the way and makes them all sound the same. Much of the dialogue is redundant and predictable. And Carter has the bad habit of announcing actions too far in advance, actions that he does not deliver satisfactorily. He creates a world that is too big. He gives the reader too much information.

The author of seven acclaimed nonfiction books, Carter has penned a fictional work that is worth reading because it explores, for public consumption, a piece of American life that is rarely discussed outside of elite intellectual circles.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Times