The Emperor Of Ocean Park
Stephen L. Carter plays chess fervently, so it's natural that law professor Talcott Garland, the protagonist of Carter's debut novel The Emperor Of Ocean Park, is a chess nut. And, because the hefty legal thriller takes place amid the upper-class black communities of Washington D.C. and Martha's Vineyard, it's not surprising that Carter would use chess as a none-too-subtle racial metaphor. One of the book's central plot points concerns a tough chess problem which Talcott's late fathera disgraced federal judge known to his friends and family simply as the Judgehas attempted to modify so that black would win. But chess doesn't just signify black-and-white in The Emperor Of Ocean Park; the concepts of pawns, subtleties of position, and issues of protection and safety are all equally loaded with significance. When the Judge dies, some of his shady associates come to Talcott, demanding to know about "the arrangements." When Talcott professes ignorance, his father's friends and other authority figures ask him to learn what he can, then tell them whatever he finds out, meanwhile assuring him that he and his family will be kept safe no matter what happens. But his excavation of his family's past threatens to destroy his relationship with his wife, Kimmer, an attorney who fears that his increasingly paranoid behavior will affect her ambitions to rise to the bench. Carter himself is a law professor, as well as an essayist well-regarded by both liberals and conservatives for his book-length inquiries into the need for faith, ethics, and common courtesy in contemporary society. As a fiction writer, though, he too often resorts to dialectics. The dialogue in The Emperor Of Ocean Park either advances the plot or frames a debate, revealing only a little nuancemuch of which is misleading, as an apparently unreliable narrator eventually turns out to be merely an unpleasant and somewhat misogynist one. Carter also packs the 650-page novel with a superfluity of characters, mainly Talcott's colleagues, who may be based on people Carter himself knows. The Emperor Of Ocean Park veers away from its plot too often, inducing frustration primarily because that plot is so spellbinding. Carter knows how to string together revelations and cliffhangers to keep the pages turning, and he knows how to drape his potboiler in robes of significance, carried by the machinations of powerful men and the recurring motif of judgment. As the story progresses, with the hero taking action and facing inconceivably tough consequences, The Emperor Of Ocean Park settles on one clear message: The game is cruel, but only for those who play.