Michael David Cobb's Reviews > The Emperor of Ocean Park

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter
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Jan 15, 2009

it was ok

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter. is a quite compelling if not evenly flowing or artistic read. It's an ambitious book that works on many different levels. As a first time novelist, Carter should have stuck to one or two, but in the end you are glad that he didn't.[return][return]As a thriller, it bites you slo-o-o-wly. I get the feeling that if Carter weren't so interested in putting us in his protagonist's stubborn and provincial shoes, we might figure out exactly what is going to happen next. Of course you cannot guess because the twists and surprises go for almost 650 pages. The thriller could have been shortened by half. But if we were to do that, we would have had to make the protagonist less harried and more intrigued.[return][return]Talcott Garland is not intrigued, he is haunted by being the scion of a legendary judge and patriarch who has set in motion wrecking ball from the grave aimed directly at his upper middle-class life. Carter is not content to trace the trajectory of this wrecking ball as it crashes through the many windows and wall of Garland's complicated life - no that would be a thriller. Rather he draws out the contemplations of a man who may by his actions and reactions to the threats of this wrecking ball, may be going insane, or who may be becoming a hero. And since Talcott Garland is a member of the darker nation, Carter has reinscribed a new class of Negroes into the duBoisian dilemma of dual consciousness. What's so thrilling about that?[return][return]What's thrilling about it is that this is certainly what Carter must know he is doing. And as we like to say in the black upper middle class, 'this sets us back 100 years'. But that's just one angle on this story and I'll leave it at that.[return][return]Carter also injects a healthy dose of his most potent moralizing into the conscience of Talcott Garland who is forever trying to keep his wits and perspective about him. While he is surrounded by a whirlwind of manipulators and players, he tries desperately to play it straight. Talcott Garland has no guile to rely upon which gives him the courage to fight. Yet his abiding faith in his ability to recover the love of his cheating wife alone and finally serve honorably as head of his family pushes him to seek answers to the questions he'd rather not know. Garland comes armed with a host of virtues sown deeply in the ways and means of the talented tenth, but they are supplied not inherently but through his extended family. Each of a dozen family members and friends has a slice of those virtues and each imparts a bit of strength or knowledge upon poor Talcott as he valiantly struggles to unlock the mystery.[return][return]Furthermore as a story of the times, of the moral mishmash of career ambitions in academia and in Washington, it's a marvelous book that continues his non-fiction scolding by other means.[return][return]What absolutely floored me was the patience evidenced in the setting of traps by certain characters - there's not much you hear about anything so subtle in any fictional intrigue which has such a long horizon. Instead you hear the reverse, that mistakes made are long hid and only newly discovered by the hounding media or political opposition but that once discovered they are immediately brought to bear.[return][return]Further, I think Carter does an admirable job of bringing race in and out of focus naturally as the story progresses, which is how it happens in life.[return][return]It's a very ambitious book and quite a tall order for any writer. As an artist he's not quite up to the task. Although there are a number of gems in the form of page-long paragraphs you can just tell couldn't be dickered with, most of the writing is just writing. His habit of dropping annoying little bomblets of discovery at the very end of his chapters serves the purpose of helping keep parts of Talcott's recognition obscured to the reader, but gets tiresome. But the ending 200 pages makes up for it, given Talcott's final machinations and collaborations.[return][return]I think the book is a bit chaptery, and it comes as no surprise that he created 64 to coincide with the number of squares on a chessboard, but I would have liked Talcott to be a lot more chess-wise in his thinking. Even having him think "protect the queen" would have been better. Also I think Talcott needed to be frayed a lot more. It would have drawn me in deeper. One never gets the feeling that Talcott's ruination would evoke in him the ugly side of losing one's status, I didn't sense his contempt for his potential lower-class neighbors, or his sense of how he would adapt. Talcott's mushy self-esteem is not a compelling place for a reader, but it does serve the purposes of Carter's moral lecture...[return][return]Carter's imagery of Martha's Vineyard is not so descriptive so much as evocative for those who already have some emotional resonance with the place. But I found myself riding along on the ferry, gazing of the cliffs at Gay Head and lazily walking the Circuit along with him.[return][return]The book is fascinating and bears up under different layers of scrutiny. That is what makes it good, and a must read for those of us who have shared, at various points in our life, the muddled consciousness of Talcott Garland.
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