Saturday, July 12, 2008

New England White: Carter as LeCarre?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I liked Stephen Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park a lot, but I lost track, in the hubbub of the last year, of his second novel, New England White (New York: Knopf, 2007), which I finished just in time to dig into his new novel, Palace Council.  Like another lawyer-novelist, Scott Turow, Carter takes a secondary 51clbosltll_sl500_aa240_ character from his first novel and makes her the protagonist of the second. In Turow's case, it was Presumed Innocent's defense counsel, Sandy Stern; here it is the first lady, Julia Veazey Carlyle, of Ocean Park's Yale-like university.  I won't spoil the plot; this is a mystery.  Suffice it to say that it involves Julia's relationship with three men, her murdered ex-lover, a brilliant but insufferable economist, her husband, the most powerful black man, and maybe the most powerful man, in the country, and a stoic, if not heroic, ex-cop.  In addition, there's her troubled teenage daughter, her ex-patriate mother, and a presidential election contest that might have occurred if Bill Clinton and George Bush were party-hound roommates together at Yale and then ran against each other.

Unlike The Emperor of Ocean Park, however, New England White is engagingly flawed, and I take what may be my all-time favorite books, John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, as points of comparison, good and bad.  Like LeCarre's early work (his later books, I think, became intentional or unintentional caricature), Carter's mysteries give us an insight into a heretofore closed set.  For LeCarre, it was the Belgravia and Mayfair plus Oxbridge don as spy set; for Carter, it is the aristocracy of black society.  Moreover, like LeCarre, Carter weaves into his mysteries far more than mere action.  There are real moral ambiguities here - not the least of which is the extent to which one is entitled to use odious means - blackmail, among them - to a good end (for LeCarre, the triumph of the West over the Soviets; for Carter, the advancement of the darker nation).

That's why New England White is engaging; why is it flawed?   Again, let's use the two LeCarre books as a point of comparison.  They are two of the most intricately plotted books you will ever want to read.  They, like New England White, are written in the third person limited omniscient (for LeCarre, it's mostly Smiley, but also major secondary characters like Jim Prideaux and Peter Guillam; for Carter, it's primarily Julia and Bruce, the ex-cop).  LeCarre's narrator has something of a presence but it is, for some reason, far less obtrusive than Carter's.  I had the reaction from time to time that Carter couldn't resist his own cleverness - the one instance that springs to mind is one of the characters observing that a male author should not use a woman character as his voice.  Moreover, LeCarre's plots flowed inexorably.  Carter has concocted a complex and kind of fun web of deceit, cover-up, and cabal.  I won't say I couldn't put it down, but it kept me going.  But like the author, the heroes just seemed to me to be too clever, the dialogue a little too stilted, and there were too many Dickensian coincidences. It was just a little too forced, and as such, the plot seemed to keep calling attention to itself.  Nevertheless, Carter (unlike some other law professor novelists I won't name) seems to have restrained the law professor's inclination to explain everything, at least immediately.

No, what really keeps one going in New England White, despite the flaws, is that Julia really is a pretty good character - a strong, intelligent, flawed, rounded woman, even if her circumstances strain credibility from time to time.  And that may be consistent with Carter's general iconoclasm from Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby on:  don't assume my pigeonholes just because of who I am, because I'm too complex and I will surprise you.

NOTE:  If you're in the Boston area, Professor Carter will be reading selections from Palace Council at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on Wednesday, July 16.

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