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A Review of Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park


Friday, Aug. 23, 2002

Stephen Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park (Knopf 2002)

Stephen Carter's new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park, has gotten a great deal of publicity. Carter, after all, occupies a place near the top of the legal academic stratosphere as the William Nelson Cromwell Professor at Yale Law School and is the author of numerous nonfiction books on law and policy, including Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby and The Confirmation Mess.

One of the many reasons that Carter has remained such a fascinating - and successful - member of the academic elite is that his positions are not easily categorized. At times, he takes positions that make him attractive to almost all parts of the political scene - and, of course, takes other positions that irritate those whom he recently pleased. As a result, Carter's extremely ambitious fiction debut, The Emperor of Ocean Park was much-awaited.

Some might call Carter the thinking man's John Grisham, but I found The Emperor of Ocean Parkto be more in the John Le Carre vein, albeit with a more accessible plot.

A Novel That Offers A Strong Social and Institutional Portrait and Critique

The strongest part of this book is Carter's wry and intelligent view of a number of American institutions: the upper-crusty university (especially its faculty), the judiciary (especially the confirmation process), and the black community (especially its richer enclaves).

For obvious reasons, Carter has had a great deal of contact with all three of these groups and he portrays them skillfully. Importantly, he shows a great deal of fondness for each, even while showing a sardonic sensibility regarding their weaker points.

The Emperor of Ocean Park is the story of Talcott Garland, son of famed conservative judge Oliver Garland and professor of law at Elm Harbor University, a university that bears more than a passing resemblance to Carter's own Yale. Not insignificantly, the Garlands are black, and a large part of the book revolves around race, which played as large a role in Oliver's life and career as it does in Talcott's.

The book opens with Oliver's death and, at its most simple level, is a "whodunnit," as Talcott struggles to figure out how and why his father died. This search takes him through a variety of famous American communities, including the historically black section of Martha's Vineyard, Ocean Park, after which the book is named.

In the course of the search, Garland is forced to explore a number of worlds that are rarely found in the same book, such as the worlds of: legal academics, judges, affluent African-Americans (and occasionally not-so-affluent African-Americans), chess problem enthusiasts (if you don't know what this means, as I didn't, you'll have to read the book to find out), homeless shelters, law firms, the CIA, religion and organized crime. One of the book's greatest accomplishments is that the marriage of these various entities rarely feels forced.

What Carter Could Learn From Grisham; What Grisham Could Learn From Carter

Because of the whodunnit nature of the book, and the fact that - at some level - this is a legal novel, some readers might compare the book to John Grisham's most recent offering, The Summons, which is also the story of a law professor son trying to understand the death of a jurist father. Both Grisham and Carter would benefit from a hefty dose of the other's skills, however.

Carter, on the other hand, could use more of Grisham's sense of pace and how to tell a story, and this is why Emperoris more reminiscent of Le Carre than of Grisham: the plot is interesting and fairly well crafted, but the commentary on various social and political institutions is the real reason to read the book.

A Book To Immerse Oneself In, Rather Than a Quick Page-Turner

Emperor clocks in at over 650 pages, and the reader feels almost every page of that length. Subjects like Talcott 's interest in chess, his marriage, his family, his career and his views on politics all get in-depth examination, and there are times when the book really bogs down in detail.

When Carter gets it right, however, these in-depth explorations make for phenomenal reading. For example, Carter describes a dinner involving members of the law faculty that is simply one of the best fictional passages I have read. On one level, it is entertaining writing, but the intelligence of Carter's commentary takes the reader beyond simple enjoyment; as a result of the passage, I felt I learned something more about how faculty members interact.

From a strictly personal standpoint, I found that I especially enjoyed Carter's more involved discussions of law schools and the judiciary as opposed to his sections on chess, the Garland family and the affluent black community. But that's doubtless because I am a member of the legal community. As a result, based on my own experiences, the quality of Carter's observations was readily apparent. Other readers, especially those who come from non-legal backgrounds, might find the sections on chess, the Garland family and the affluent black community equally valuable, while finding the sections on the legal world more tedious.

A Worthwhile Mystery That Will Stay With You

Even though some sections of the book didn't move as quickly or easily as others, I found the book to be well worth my time. Unfortunately, it's rare to find a mystery as intelligently written as Emperor.

Even the parts of Emperor that I found personally less interesting were thought provoking and gave me insights into worlds with which I was at least somewhat unfamiliar. For lawyers, this book will be especially interesting. It involves a number of legal communities, all of which are portrayed with wit and skill, proving that one of Carter's greatest abilities is the way he can point out shortcomings without ever lapsing into lampoon.

This is not a perfect book, but it's a very interesting one. I can't imagine any lawyer regretting their decision to read it, even if at times they wish that Carter's editor had forced him to cut to the chase a little faster.

Sam Williamson is an attorney practicing in New York.

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