Judging the judge: A literary thriller follows a son's journey of discovery
For almost 20 years Stephen L. Carter has been carrying a powerful character around in his imagination.
"He was a cold, distant person of enormously strong political views," Carter says during a call to his office at Yale University Law School, "the patriarch of his family, pretty conservative in the sense that a lot of old, traditional black families are conservative. A judge."
While he struggled and experimented with ways to free this character to tell his story, while bits and pieces of novels accumulated in a trunk in his basement, Carter pursued his career as a professor of law and a public intellectual. He wrote such widely praised nonfiction books as The Culture of Disbelief and Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. He appeared frequently as an expert commentator on Nightline and Face the Nation. He wrote often in the popular press and legal journals. He was named William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale.
Finally, about five years ago, Carter, who has known since childhood that he wanted to write novels, discovered the fictional vehicle that would allow the judge—and all the other characters associated with this powerful, controversial personality—to come alive. Well, almost alive. Because one of the intriguing things about The Emperor of Ocean Park is that the dominant personality of the novel—Judge Oliver Garland—dies at home in his study in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of the story.
When Carter finally completed his first novel, its mix of character and action so thrilled those in the publishing world that they clamored to buy the whopping doorstop of a book. Knopf outbid 11 other publishers with a $4 million, two-book deal, and movie makers fell in line soon thereafter, offering a hefty sum for the film rights. The competition garnered newspaper headlines and predictions that the book would be one of the biggest hits of the summer. Adding to the hoopla is Knopf's decision to launch The Emperor of Ocean Park with a staggering 500,000 first printing.
It's a hefty gamble on a first-time fiction author, but the publisher is confident readers will flock to this complex literary thriller. Carter deftly weaves together several strands, from the relationships of fathers and sons and husbands and wives to the politics of the Nixon and Reagan eras.
At the center of it all is the recently deceased Judge Garland, who had been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, then forced to withdraw because of his association with a shadowy figure named Jack Ziegler.
Embittered by his treatment by liberals in the Senate, Judge Garland became a darling of the Republican Right and grew increasingly distant from his three surviving children. One of the three, Mariah, does not believe the judge has died of natural causes. She inveigles her brother Talcott, a law professor at a fictional Ivy League law school in an equally fictional town called Elm Harbor, Connecticut, to join her in an investigation of her father's death. Talcott—Misha to his friends—is the narrator of The Emperor of Ocean Park.
And Talcott has problems of his own. He struggles to hold together his marriage with his disloyal wife, Kimmer, an ambitious attorney on the president's short-list for the federal bench. As he tries to unravel the clues his father left him in the form of chess problems, he grows increasingly alienated from his colleagues at the law school. His relationship with his young son worsens. He is pursued by a maddening array of people who demand to know about his father's "arrangements." And, finally, he must contend with the awesome task of discovering who his father really was.
One of the most interesting threads of the book is Carter's portrayal of the black upper class and black professionals.
"I didn't grow up around that kind of wealth in the black community, but many people do," Carter says. "Many of these professional families, with their big houses, imported cars and vacation homes, have had money for generations. That is something we don't hear about very much, and I wanted to talk about that experience a little bit. Another thing I wanted to talk about are some of the day-to-day perceptions of black professionals who work in predominately white places."
Carter says that much of the novel is about perceptions. And he cautions, "It's not a book of opinion. These things emerged as I began to let my characters tell their stories. In fact, there are things in the book that I don't agree with. The point was not to persuade the reader but to provoke the reader, to put in these asides, these subtleties, these themes that people don't think about so much. The different ways in which people very often see the same event is important. What fascinates me in relationships between people is how so much of life is misunderstanding."
Asked about the surface similarities between his character Talcott, a professor of law at an Ivy League school, and himself, Carter is quick to remind his reader that this is a work of fiction, of imagination.
"Talcott is a deeply obsessive person who is constantly interrogating the world," Carter says. "I have a much more laid-back view of the world. And I think I have a greater acceptance of human frailty than Talcott does. It's very important for me to portray people in ways that they are not a captive of their weaknesses. What is of real interest to me about life— and therefore was of interest to me in writing this novel—is the notion that people succeed not because they undergo fundamental changes of character, but because they transcend their weaknesses."
Continuing in that vein, Carter says, "I'm interested in constancy. I'm interested in how people stay the same. Indeed, I'm interested in the virtue of staying the same sometimes when the world is changing around you. That's why so much of the book is about love and loyalty," he says. "Talcott's attitude about love in the book is an old notion in Christianity and Judaism and a lot of traditional societies. It's the idea that love is an activity, an act of will, rather than a feeling or desire. Talcott and other characters . . . cling to decisions to be loyal or loving, as opposed to simply being moved by what they happen to be feeling. Love is something you decide to do."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, Caifornia.