Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stephen L. Carter and Henry Louis Gates

Carter, Stephen L. The Emperor of Ocean Park. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Carter's hefty novel (657 pages) is about politics in Washington, D.C., politics in academia, and politics within families. The "hero" and narrator of the novel, Talcott Garland, son to controversial and once influential judge, Oliver Garland, is in a rocky marriage to an ambitious lawyer who, it has been rumored, is in line for a high federal court position. As she tries to maintain a discreet profile, Talcott, who teaches law at a prestigious institution, has reason to suspect that his father was murdered, and his investigations into this possibility make it difficult for his wife to maintain a low profile. Talcott is also ambitious, but is also insecure, jealous, and a little self-absorbed. While Carter has provided an intriguing and captivating plot line, he also examines life as an African American in the academy. Talcott's every move is watched and commented on, analyzed and criticized. Favors are asked and not returned, motives are questioned, and accomplishments do no receive their full merit.

One scene in the novel is amazingly similar to a news story, reported just yesterday (7/20), of celebrated scholar Henry Louis Gates who was questioned by police in his own home after they received a report that he was breaking in. He was later arrested, it seems, because of his angry response to the questioning. Here is the link to the news article: http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2009/07/harvard.html.

In Carter's novel, Talcott is being followed by representatives from the several people who are also looking for information about his father. The two men beat Talcott up and he climbs a construction scaffolding to escape them. When the police arrive after having been called they arrest the bruised and beaten Talcott as the suspect. Regardless of the fact that he shows his prestigious university ID and keeps telling them that he works there and that he is the one who has been beaten, he is taken away. Later, his colleagues criticize him for creating a scene and for bringing bad publicity to the department by getting himself arrested.

Carter's novel is interesting and worth reading on many levels, for its view of political and academic life, and for its exploration of privilege and race in our society and especially in academia. Get it on a CD (about 20 hours worth) at your public library for a transcontinental summer drive.

Burling Library PS 3603. A78 E4 2002

Other novels by Stephen L. Carter at Grinnell College Libraries

New England White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
PS3603.A78 N48 2007.

Palace Council. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
PS3603.A78 P35 2008.

Before writing novels (in the 21st century), Carter wrote books on society, politics, and government (in the 20th Century). To see a list of all of Stephen L. Carter's books follow this link.

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