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Written by Stephen L. CarterAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stephen L. Carter



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On Sale: June 04, 2002
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Synopsis

In his triumphant fictional debut, Stephen Carter combines a large-scale, riveting novel of suspense with the saga of a unique family. The Emperor of Ocean Park is set in two privileged worlds: the upper crust African American society of the Eastern seabord—families who summer at Martha’s Vineyard—and the inner circle of an Ivy League law school.

Talcott Garland is a successful law professor, devoted father, and husband of a beautiful and ambitious woman, whose future desires may threaten the family he holds so dear. When Talcott’s father, Judge Oliver Garland, a disgraced former Supreme Court nominee, is found dead under suspicioius circumstances, Talcott wonders if he may have been murdered. Guided by the elements of a mysterious puzzle that his father left, Talcott must risk his marriage, his career and even his life in his quest for justice. Superbly written and filled with memorable characters, The Emperor of Ocean Park is both a stunning literary achievement and a grand literary entertainment.

Excerpt

PROLOGUE

THE VINEYARD HOUSE

When my father finally died, he left the Redskins tickets to my brother, the house on Shepard Street to my sister, and the house on the Vineyard to me. The football tickets, of course, were the most valuable item in the estate, but then Addison was always the biggest favorite and the biggest fan, the only one of the children who came close to sharing my father's obsession, as well as the only one of us actually on speaking terms with my father the last time he drew his will. Addison is a gem, if you don't mind the religious nonsense, but Mariah and I have not been close in the years since I joined the enemy, as she puts it, which is why my father bequeathed us houses four hundred miles apart.

I was glad to have the Vineyard house, a tidy little Victorian on Ocean Park in the town of Oak Bluffs, with lots of frilly carpenter's Gothic along the sagging porch and a lovely morning view of the white band shell set amidst a vast sea of smooth green grass and outlined against a vaster sea of bright blue water. My parents liked to tell how they bought the house for a song back in the sixties, when Martha's Vineyard, and the black middle-class colony that summers there, were still smart and secret. Lately, in my father's oft-repeated view, the Vineyard had tumbled downhill, for it was crowded and noisy and, besides, they let everyone in now, by which he meant black people less well off than we. There were too many new houses going up, he would moan, many of them despoiling the roads and woods near the best beaches. There were even condominiums, of all things, especially near Edgartown, which he could not understand, because the southern part of the island is what he always called Kennedy country, the land where rich white vacationers and their bratty children congregate, and a part-angry, part-jealous article of my father's faith held that white people allow the members of what he liked to call the darker nation to swarm and crowd while keeping the open spaces for themselves.

And yet, amidst all the clamor, the Vineyard house is a small marvel. I loved it as a child and love it more now. Every room, every dark wooden stair, every window whispers its secret share of memories. As a child, I broke an ankle and a wrist in a fall from the gabled roof outside the master bedroom; now, more than thirty years after, I no longer recall why I thought it would be fun to climb there. Two summers later, as I wandered the house in post-midnight darkness, searching for a drink of water, an odd mewling sound dropped me into a crouch on the landing, whence, a week or so shy of my tenth birthday, I peered through the balustrade and thus caught my first stimulating glimpse of the primal mystery of the adult world. I saw my brother, Addison, four years older than I, tussling with our cousin Sally, a dark beauty of fifteen, on the threadbare burgundy sofa opposite the television down in the shadowy nook of the stairwell, neither of them quite fully dressed, although I was somehow unable to figure out precisely what articles of clothing were missing. My instinct was to flee. Instead, seized by a weirdly thrilling lethargy, I watched them roll about, their arms and legs intertwined in seemingly random postures--making out, we called it in those simpler days, a phrase pregnant with purposeful ambiguity, perhaps as a protection against the burden of specificity.

My own teen years, like my adulthood dreary and overlong, brought no similar adventures, least of all on the Vineyard; the highlight, I suppose, came near the end of our last summer sojourn as a full family, when I was about thirteen, and Mariah, a rather pudgy fifteen and angry at me for some smart-mouthed crack about her weight, borrowed a box of kitchen matches, then stole a Topps Willie Mays baseball card that I treasured and climbed the dangerous pull-down ladder to the attic, eight rickety wooden slats, most of them loose. When I caught up with her, my sister burned the card before my eyes as I wept helplessly, falling to my knees in the wretched afternoon heat of the dusty, low-ceilinged loft--the two of us already set in our lifelong pattern of animosity. That same summer, my sister Abigail, in those days still known as the baby, even though just a bit more than a year younger than I, made the local paper, the Vineyard Gazette, when she won something like eight different prizes at the county fair on a muggy August night by throwing darts at balloons and baseballs at milk bottles, and so solidified her position as the family's only potential athlete--none of the rest of us dared try, for our parents always preached brains over brawn.

Four Augusts later, Abby's boyish laughter was no longer heard along Ocean Park, or anywhere else, her joy in life, and ours in her, having vanished in a confused instant of rain-slicked asphalt and an inexperienced teenager's fruitless effort to evade an out-of-control sports car, something fancy, seen by several witnesses but never accurately described and therefore never found; for the driver who killed my baby sister a few blocks north of the Washington Cathedral in that first spring of Jimmy Carter's presidency left the scene long before the police arrived. That Abby had only a learner's permit, not a license, never became a matter of public knowledge; and the marijuana that was found in her borrowed car was never again mentioned, least of all by the police or even the press, because my father was who he was and had the connections that he did, and, besides, in those days it was not yet our national sport to ravage the reputations of the great. Abby was therefore able to die as innocently as we pretended that she had lived. Addison by that time was on the verge of finishing college and Mariah was about to begin her sophomore year, leaving me in the nervous role of what my mother kept calling her only child. And all that Oak Bluffs summer, as my father, tight-lipped, commuted to the federal courthouse in Washington and my mother shuffled aimlessly from one downstairs room to the next, I made it my task to hunt through the house for memories of Abby--at the bottom of a stack of books on the black metal cart underneath the television, her favorite game of Life; in the back of the glass-fronted cabinet over the sink, a white ceramic mug emblazoned with the legend BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL, purchased to annoy my father; and, hiding in a corner of the airless attic, a stuffed panda named George, after the martyred black militant George Jackson, won at the fair and now leaking from its joints some hideous pink substance--memories, I must confess in my perilous middle age, that have grown ever fainter with the passage of time.

Ah, the Vineyard house! Addison was married in it, twice, once more or less successfully, and I smashed the leaded glass in the double front door, also twice, once more or less intentionally. Every summer of my youth we went there to live, because that is what one does with a summer home. Every winter my father griped about the upkeep and threatened to sell it, because that is what one does when happiness is a questionable investment. And when the cancer that pursued her for six years finally won, my mother died in it, in the smallest bedroom, with the nicest view of Nantucket Sound, because that is what one does if one can choose one's end.

My father died at his desk. And, at first, only my sister and a few stoned callers to late-night radio shows believed he had been murdered.


* * * * * *


THE WHITE KITCHEN

(I)

The news of the Judge's death reached us several times in the years before the event actually occurred. It is not that he was ill; he was, as a rule, so vigorous that one tended to forget his wavering health, which is why the heart attack that at last cut him down was, at first, so difficult to credit. It is simply that he led the sort of life that generated rumor. People disliked my father, intensely, and he returned the favor. They spread stories of his death because they prayed the stories were true. To his enemies--they were legion, a fact in which he gloried--my father was a plague, and rumors of a cure always raise hopes in those who suffer, or love those who do. And, in this case, some of those my father plagued were not people but causes, which, in America, can always count their lovers in the millions, unlike individual people, who die unloved every day. Not one of his enemies but hated my father, and not one but spread the stories. Self-styled friends would call. They were always whispering how sorry they were. They had heard, they would say, about my father's heart attack while promoting his latest book up in Boston. Or his stroke while taping a television interview out in Cincinnati. Except that there would not have been one: he would be alive and well in San Antonio, speaking to the convention of some conservative political action committee--the Rightpacs, Kimmer calls them. But, oh, the gleeful rumors of his demise! My mother hated the rumors, not for the heartache, she said, but for the humiliation--there were standards, after all. But not in the rumor mill. Waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket, just before my son Bentley was born, I was astonished to read on the cover of one of the more imaginative tabloids, just beneath the weekly Whitney Houston story (TALKS CANDIDLY ABOUT HER HEARTBREAK) and just above the latest way to lose as much weight as you want without diet or exercise (A MIRACLE DOCTORS WON'T TELL YOU), the gladsome tidings that the Mafia had put out a contract on my father, because of his cooperation with federal prosecutors--although, when Kimmer made me go back to the store and buy it and I read the whole thing, all one hundred fifty words, I noticed a pointed lack of detail as to what my father could possibly have to cooperate with prosecutors about, or what he might know about the Mafia that would be so dangerous. I called Mrs. Rose, the Judge's long-suffering assistant, and finally caught up with him on the road in Seattle. He took the opportunity to warn me yet again on the insidiousness of his enemies.

"They will do anything, Talcott, anything to destroy me," he announced in the oracular tone he tended to adopt when discussing those who disliked him. He repeated the word a third time, in case my hearing was off: "Anything."

Including, I noted while leafing through the pessimistic pages of The Nation a few years back, accuse him of paranoia. Or was it megalomania? Anyway, my father was sure they were out to get him, and my sister was sure they were right. When the Judge skipped Bentley's christening three years ago, worried the press might be there, Mariah defended him, pointing out that he had missed half the baptisms of her children--no difficult feat, given the numbers--but by then she and I were barely speaking anyway.

Once a false story of my father's demise made the real papers--not the supermarket tabloids, but the Washington Post, which killed him on a wintry morning in a commuter plane crash in Virginia, one among a dozen victims, his apparent presence on board noted poignantly, but also coyly: CONTROVERSIAL FORMER JUDGE FEARED DEAD IN CRASH is what the headline said. The irony was plain to the most casual follower of current events, because what people feared was not my father dead but my father alive; and because of the unhappy turning his career took, which was also, my father liked to say, the fault of the Post and "its ilk." Left-wing muckrakers, my father called them in his well-remunerated speeches to the Rightpacs, who were pleased to hear this angry, articulate black lawyer blaming the media for his resignation from the federal bench not long after the collapse of his anticipated elevation to the Supreme Court, where, his conservative fans loved to remind his liberal critics, he had argued and won two key desegregation cases in the sixties. Oh, but he could be confounding! Which is why Mariah was certain that there were smiles of relief all along the Cambridge-Washington axis (where she picked up that hackneyed phrase I will never know, but I suspect it was from Addison, who could always stand her) when the early editions of the Post carried the crash story and a couple of the more careless news-radio stations repeated it. The plague, it seemed for a glorious instant, was at an end. But my wily father was not on board. Although his name was on the manifest and he had checked in, he had prudently chosen that occasion to argue via long distance with my mother, then busily dying at the Vineyard house, over the cost of some repairs to the gutters, and the discussion grew sufficiently extended that he missed the flight. The airline got its passenger list wrong, this being back in the days when it was still possible to do such a thing. "That's how much she loved me," the Judge told us in a drunken ramble the night of Claire Garland's funeral. He cried, too, which none of us had seen before--only Addison even claimed to have seen him take a drink since the bad period just after Abby died--and Mariah slapped my face when, the very next day, I pointed out to her that, in the six years of my mother's illness, my father spent as much time on the road as he did at her bedside. "So what?" my sister demanded as I groped for a suitable riposte to a palm across the cheek--a question, once I thought about it, that I was ill-prepared to answer.

And perhaps I deserved the rebuke, for the Judge, despite his coldness toward most of the world, including, usually, his children, was never anything but tender and affectionate with our mother. Even when my father was a practicing lawyer, before the move to government service, he was constantly leaving meetings with clients to take calls from his Claire. Later, on the Securities and Exchange Commission and then on the bench, he would sometimes leave litigants waiting while he chatted with his wife, who seemed to take such treatment as her due. He smiled for her in a natural delight that told the world how grateful he was for the day Claire Morrow said yes; at least until Abby died, after which he did not do much smiling for a while. Once a semblance of family stability was re-established, my parents used to take evening walks along Shepard Street, holding hands.

Of course, my father was on the road constantly. At the time of his death, he liked to call himself just another Washington lawyer, which meant that when he wanted to reach me he would have Mrs. Rose place the call, his own time being too precious, and, when I came on the line, he would invariably put me on the speakerphone, perhaps to leave his hands free for other work. Mrs. Rose told me once that I should not be upset: he put everybody on the speakerphone, treating it as though it had just been invented. Indeed, everything that he was doing was new to him. He was, formally, of counsel to the law firm of Corcoran & Klein--of counsel being a term of art covering a multitude of awkward relationships, from the retired partner who no longer does any lawyering to the out-of-work bureaucrat trying to bring in enough business to earn a full partnership to the go-go consultant looking for a respectable place to hang a shingle. In my father's case, the firm offered a veneer of gentility and a place to take his messages, but little more. He saw few clients. He practiced no law. He wrote books, went on nationwide speaking tours, and, when he needed a rest, showed up on Nightline and Crossfire and Imus to beguile the evil armies of the left. Indeed, he was the perfect talk-show guest: he was willing to say nearly anything about nearly anybody, and he would call anyone who argued with him the most erudite and puzzling names. (The censors would have a terrible time when he used words like wittol and pettifoggery, and he was once bleeped out on one of the radio talk shows for describing a particular candidate's shift to the right during the Republican presidential primaries as an act of ecdysis.) Oh, yes, people hated him, and he reveled in their enmity.

Mariah, naturally, made more of all this than I did. I have always thought that the far left and far right need each other, desperately, for if either one were to vanish the other would lose its reason to exist, a conviction that has freshened in me from year to year, as each grows ever more vehement in its search for somebody to hate. Now and then, I even wondered aloud to Kimmer--I would say it to no one else--whether my father manufactured half his political views in order to keep his face on television, his enemies at his heels, and his speaking fees in the range of half a million dollars a year. But Mariah, having been in her time both philosophy major and investigative journalist, sees oppositions as real; the Judge and his enemies, she would say, were playing out the great ideological debates of the era. It was the culture war, she would insist, that brought him down. I thought this proposition quite silly, and came to think, after years of reading about it, that the scandal-mongers who drove him from the bench might have had a point; and I made the mistake of saying this, too, on the telephone to Mariah, not long after Bob Woodward published his best-selling book about the case. The book, I told her, was pretty convincing: the Judge was not a victim but a perjurer.


* * * * * *

(II)

The first thing I notice about Uncle Jack is that he is ill. Jack Ziegler was never a very large man, but he always seemed a menacing one. I do not know how many people he has killed, although I often fear that it is more than the numbers hinted at in the press. I have not seen him in well over a decade and have not missed him. But the changes in the man! Now he is frail, the suit of fine gray wool and the dark blue scarf hanging loosely on his emaciated frame. The square, strong face I remember from my boyhood, when he would visit us on the Vineyard, armed with expensive gifts, wonderful brainteasers, and terrible jokes, is falling in on itself; the silver hair, still reasonably thick, lies matted on his head; and his pale pink lips tremble when he is not speaking, and sometimes when he is. He approaches in the company of a taller and broader and much younger man, who silently steadies him when he stumbles. A friend, I think, except that the Jack Zieglers of the world have no friends. A bodyguard, then. Or, given Uncle Jack's physical condition, perhaps a nurse.

"Well, look who's here," Addison seethes.

"Let me handle this," I insist with my usual stupidity. I discipline myself not to speculate about what Mariah suggested as we sat in the kitchen Friday night.

"All yours."

Before Jack Ziegler quite reaches us, I warn Kimmer to stay down by the car with Bentley, and, for once, she does as I ask without an argument, for no potential judge can be seen even chatting with such a man. Uncle Mal steps forward as though to run the same interference for me that he does for his clients as they leave the grand jury, but I motion him back and tell him I will be fine. Then I turn and hurry up the hill. Mariah, of course, is already gone, which is just as well, for this apparition might push her over the edge. Only Addison remains nearby, just far enough away to be polite, but close enough to be of help if . . . if what?

"Hello, Uncle Jack," I say as Abby's godfather and I arrive, simultaneously, at the grave. Then I wait. He does not extend his hand and I do not offer mine. His bodyguard or whatever stands off to the side and a little bit behind, eyeing my brother uneasily. (I myself am evidently too unthreatening to excite his vigilance.)

"I bring you my condolences, Talcott," Jack Ziegler murmurs in his peculiar accent, vaguely East European, vaguely Brooklyn, vaguely Harvard, which my father always insisted was manufactured, as phony as Eddie Dozier's East Texas drawl. As Uncle Jack speaks, his eyes are cast downward, toward the grave. "I am so sorry about the death of your father."

"Thank you. I'm afraid we missed you at the church--"

"I despise funerals." Spoken matter-of-factly, like a discussion of weather, or sports, or interstate flight to avoid prosecution. "I have no interest in the celebration of death. I have seen too many good men die."

Some by your own hand, I am thinking, and I wonder if the other, rarely mentioned rumors are true, if I am talking to a man who murdered his own wife. Again Mariah's fears assail me. My sister's chronology possesses a certain mad logic--emphasis on the adjective: my father saw Jack Ziegler, my father called Mariah, my father died a few days later, then Jack Ziegler called Mariah, and now Jack Ziegler is here. I finally shared Mariah's notion with Kimmer as we lay in bed last night. My wife, head on my shoulder, giggled and said that it sounds to her more like two old friends who see each other all the time. Having no basis, yet, to decide, I say only: "Thank you for coming. Now, if you will excuse me--"

"Wait," says Jack Ziegler, and, for the first time, he turns his eyes up to meet mine. I take half a step back, for his face, close up, is a horror. His pale, papery skin is ravaged by nameless diseases that seem to me--whatever they are--an appropriate punishment for the life he has chosen to live. But it is his eyes that draw my attention. They are twin coals, hot and alive, burning with a dark, happy madness that should be visited on all murderers at some time before they die.

"Uncle Jack, I'm s-sorry," I manage. Did I actually stammer? "I have--I have to get going--"

"Talcott, I have traveled thousands of miles to see you. Surely you can spare me five of your valuable minutes." His voice has a terrible wheeze in it, and it occurs to me that I might be breathing whatever has made him this way. But I stand my ground.

"I understand you've been looking for me," I say at last.

"Yes." He seems childishly eager now, and he almost smiles, but thinks better of it. "Yes, that is so, I have been looking for you."

"You knew where to find me." I was raised to be polite, but seeing Uncle Jack like this, after all these years, brings out in me an irresistible urge to be rude. "You could have called me at home."

"That would not be--it was not possible. They know, you see, they would consider that, and I thought--I thought perhaps . . ." He trails off, the dark eyes all at once confused, and I realize that Uncle Jack is frightened of something. I hope it is the specter of prison or of his obviously approaching death that is scaring him, because anything else bad enough to scare Jack Ziegler is . . . well, something I do not want to meet.

"Okay, okay. You found me." Perhaps this is forward, but I am not so frightened of him now; on the other hand, I am not very happy about spending time in his company either. I want to flee this sickly scarecrow and retreat to the warmth, such as it is, of my family.

"Your father was a very fine man," says Uncle Jack, "and a very good friend. We did much together. Not much business, mostly pleasure."

"I see."

"The newspapers, you know, they wrote of our business dealings. There were no business dealings. It was nonsense. Trumped-up nonsense."

"I know," I lie, for Uncle Jack's benefit, but he is not interested in my opinions.

"That law clerk of his, perjuring himself that way." He makes a spitting noise but does not actually spit. "Scum." He shakes his head in feigned disbelief. "The papers, of course, they loved it. Left-wing bastards. Because they hated your father."

Not having exchanged a word with Jack Ziegler since well before my father's hearings, I have never heard his opinions about what happened. Given the tenor of his comments, I doubt he would be interested in mine. I remain silent.

"I hear the fool has never been able to get a job," says Uncle Jack, without a trace of humor, and I know who has been pulling at least a few of the strings. "I am not surprised."

"He was doing what he thought was right."

"He was lying in an effort to destroy a great man, and he is deserving of his fate."

I cannot take much more of this. As Jack Ziegler continues to rant, Mariah's nutty speculations of Friday seem . . . not so nutty. "Uncle Jack . . ."

"He was a great man, your father," Jack Ziegler interrupts. "A very great man, a very good friend. But now that he is dead, well . . ." He trails off and raises his hand, palm upmost, and tilts it one way, then the other. "Now I would very much like to be of assistance to you."

"To me?"

"Correct, Talcott. And to your family, naturally," he adds softly, rubbing his temples. The skin is so loose it seems to move under his fingers. I imagine it tearing away to leave only an unhappy skull.

I glance over at the cars. Kimmer is impatient. So is Uncle Mal. I look down at my baby sister's godfather once more. His help is the very last thing I want.

"Well, thank you, but I think we have everything under control."

"But you will call? If you need anything, you will call? Especially if . . . an emergency should arise?"

I shrug. "Okay."

"With your wife, for instance," he continues. "I understand that she is going to become a judge. I think that is wonderful. I understand that she has always wanted this."

"It isn't certain yet," I answer automatically, surprised that the secret has spread up into the Rocky Mountains, and also not wanting Jack Ziegler anywhere near her nomination. He has already spoiled one judicial career too many. "She isn't the only candidate."

"I know this." The burning eyes are gleeful again. "I understand that a colleague of yours believes the job to be his for the taking. Some would call him the front-runner."

I am thrown, once more, by the breadth of his knowledge; I choose not to wonder how he knows what he knows. I am glad that Kimmer is not within earshot.

"I suppose so. But, look, I have to--"

"Listen, Talcott. Are you listening?" He has drawn close to me again. "I do not think he has the staying power, this colleague of yours. It is my understanding that a fairly large skeleton is rattling around in his closet. And we all know what that means, eh?" He coughs violently. "Sooner or later, it is bound to tumble out."

"What kind of skeleton?" I ask, sudden eagerness overwhelming my caution.

"I would not concern myself with such things if I were you. I would not share them with your lovely wife. I would wait patiently for the wheel to turn."

I am mystified, but not precisely unhappy. If there is information that would kill off Marc Hadley's chances, I can hardly wait for it to--what did he say?--tumble out. Even though Marc and I were once friends, I cannot resist a rising excitement. Perhaps America's obsession with the use of scandal to disqualify nominees for the bench is absurd, but this is my wife we are talking about.

Still, what can Jack Ziegler possibly know about Marc Hadley that nobody else does?

"Thank you, Uncle Jack," I say uncertainly.

"I am always happy to be of assistance to any of Oliver's children." His voice has assumed a curiously formal tone. I am chilled once more. Is the skeleton something that he has somehow created? Is a criminal maneuvering to help my wife attain her longed-for seat on the bench? I have to say something, and it is not easy to decide what.

"Uh, Uncle Jack, I . . . I'm grateful that you would think to help, but . . ."

His disintegrating eyebrows slowly rise. Otherwise his expression does not change. He knows what I am trying to say but has no intention of making it easy.

"Well, it's just that I think Kimmer . . . Kimberly . . . wants to have the selection go forward so that, um, the better candidate wins. On the merits. She wouldn't want anybody to . . . interfere." And I am suddenly sure, as I say the difficult words, that what I am telling him is true. My smart, ambitious wife never wants to be beholden to anybody, for anything. When we were students, she made a name for herself around the building with her outspoken opposition to affirmative action, which she saw as just another way for white liberals to place black people in their debt.

Maybe she was right.

Uncle Jack, meanwhile, has his answer ready: "Oh, Talcott, Talcott, please have no fear on that account. I am not proposing to . . . interfere." He chuckles lightly, then coughs. "I am only predicting what is to occur. I have information. I am not going to use it. Nor do you need to do so. Your colleague, your wife's rival, has many, many enemies. One of them is certain to unlock the door and allow the skeleton to tumble out. The service I am doing for you is simply to let you know. Nothing more."

I nod. Standing up to Jack Ziegler has drained me.

"And now it is your turn," he continues. "I think perhaps you, Talcott, might be of assistance to me."

I close my eyes briefly. What did I expect? He did not travel all this way to tell me that Marc Hadley's candidacy is going to collapse, or to pay his last respects to my father. He came because he wants something.

"Talcott, you must listen to me. Listen with care. I must ask you one question."

"Go ahead." I want suddenly to be free of him. I want to share his odd news with Kimmer, even though he told me not to. I want her to kiss me happily, overjoyed that she seems to be on the verge of getting what she wants.

"Others will ask this of you, some with good motives, some with ill," he explains unhelpfully in his mysterious accent. "Not all of them will be who they say they are, and not all of them will mean you well."

I forgot Uncle Jack's eerie, unfathomable certainty that all the world is conspiring, but he evidently has changed little from the days when he used to drop by the Vineyard house with gifts from foreign ports and complaints about the machinations of the Kennedys, whose irresolution, he used to say, cost us Cuba. None of the children knew what he was talking about, but we loved the passion of his stories.

"Okay," I say.

"And so I must ask what they will ask," he continues, the mad eyes sparkling.

"Well, fire away," I sigh. Over by the limousine, Kimmer is glancing at her watch and raising her hand, beckoning, to urge me to hurry. Maybe she has another telephone meeting coming up. Maybe she, too, is scared of Jack Ziegler, whom she has never quite met. Maybe I need to get this over with. "But I really only have a few minutes to . . ."

"The arrangements, Talcott," he interrupts in that wheezy whisper. "I must know everything about the arrangements."


* * * * * *

I stand for a long moment in the narrow front yard, the key dangling from limp fingers, remembering the glorious Martha's Vineyard summers of my childhood, when friends and family swirled constantly in and out of the double front doors with their tiny panes of glass, some rose, some azure, some clear, held fast in frames of involute leading; remembering the many sad and lonely visits to this house through those endless months when my mother sat dying, often alone, in the front bedroom on the first floor; and remembering, too, how easy it became to avoid coming back here once the Judge began his tumble toward megalomania. As Kimmer fusses with Bentley and I stare at the summer home of my youth, I find that I have difficulty recalling precisely why I was so filled with joy when I learned that the Judge left me this cramped and unhappy shell. With my parents both dead, the house should by rights be dead as well, quiet and neutral; instead, it seems almost a live thing, fiendishly sentient, brooding malevolently on the family's misfortunes as it awaits the new owners. Quite suddenly I am paralyzed with some emotion far more primal than terror, a clear and utterly persuasive knowledge, shivering through me from some unnatural source, that everything is about to go wretchedly wrong: I fear that my legs will not move me to the porch, or my hands will not work the key, or the key will break off in the lock. In that terrible moment, I want to reject this scary inheritance and all its ghosts, to grab my family and hurry back to the mainland.

As usual, it is worldly Kimmer who restores me to my senses.

"Can you hurry up and open the door?" she demands sweetly. "Sorry, but I have to piss in the worst way."

"No need to be vulgar."

"There is if nothing else will get you moving."

She is correct, after a fashion, and I am being foolish. I smile at her and she almost smiles back before she catches herself. I heft the heavy suitcase in my left hand and bounce the key in my right. Then I stride boldly up the steps, heedless of the demons who caper in the shadows of memory. Drawing a breath, I dismiss them like a veteran exorcist and rattle the key into the lock. Only as the lock begins to turn do I notice that one of the tiny panes of colored glass is missing--not broken, just not there, so that through the space defined by the narrow gray leading I can see into the darkness of the house. I frown, pushing the door wide open, and, standing frozen on the threshold of the house I have loved for thirty years, I realize that the goblins have not all retreated. I try to swallow but cannot seem to gather any moisture in my throat. My limbs refuse to move me forward. Through a slowly descending curtain of the deepest angry red, I see my handsome wife brushing past me with a whispered, "Sorry, but I gotta go," and I feel her transferring Bentley's hand to mine.

Kimmer is three steps into the house before she, too, stops and stands perfectly still.

"Oh, no," she whispers. "Oh Misha oh no."

The house is a disaster. Furniture is upended, books are strewn over the floor, cabinet doors broken, rugs sliced to ribbons. My father's papers are everywhere, the breeze from the open front door ruffling their edges. I peek into the kitchen. A few of the dishes are smashed on the floor, but the mess is not as bad, and most of the plates are simply stacked on the counter. While Kimmer waits in the front room with Bentley, I force myself to go upstairs. I discover that the four bedrooms are barely disturbed. As though there was no need to bother, I am thinking as I stand in the window of the master suite, telephone in hand, talking to the police dispatcher. As I explain what has happened, I look down at the BMW, parked illegally along the split-rail fence that guards the south side of Ocean Avenue, doors still open, baggage not yet unloaded. Something isn't right. They did not wreck the second floor. The thought keeps swirling through my mind. They left the second floor alone. As though ransacking the first floor was enough. As though--as though--

As though they found what they were looking for.

Now more puzzled than frightened, I go back downstairs to join my wife and son, who, wide-eyed, are hugging each other in the living room. The police, arriving in minutes from their quaint headquarters a block away, quickly pronounce the destruction the work of local vandals, teenagers who, unfortunately, spend much of the winter trashing the homes of the summer people. Not all the Vineyard's teenagers are vandals, or even very many: just enough to annoy. The very kind officers apologize to us on behalf of the Island and assure us that they will do their best, but they also warn us not to expect to catch the people who did it: vandalisms are nearly impossible to solve.

Vandals. Kimmer eagerly accepts this explanation, and I am quite sure the insurance company will too. And, more important, the White House. Kimmer promises to make plenty of trouble for the alarm company, and I have no doubt she will keep her word. Vandals, my wife and I agree over pizza and root beer at a nearby restaurant a couple of hours later, after the man who looks after the house in the off-season has dropped by to inspect the damage.

"I'll make some calls," he told us when he finished tut-tutting his way around the place.

Vandals. Of course they were vandals. The kind of vandals who destroy one floor of the house and ignore the other. The kind of vandals who steal neither stereo nor television. The kind of vandals who know how to circumvent my late paranoid father's state-of-the-art alarm system. And the kind of vandals who are in direct contact with the spirits of the departed. For I do not tell either my wife or the friendly police officers about the note I found upstairs while waiting, sealed in a plain white envelope left on top of the dresser in the master bedroom, my correct title and full name typed neatly on the outside, the perplexing message on the inside written in the crabbed, spiky hand I remember from my childhood, when we would proudly leave copies of our school essays on the Judge's desk and wait for him to return them, a day or so later, with his comments inked redly in the margins, demonstrating what idiots our teachers were to award us A's.

The note on the dresser is from my father.

* * *

Ordinarily, on the third afternoon of a Vineyard sojourn, I would be at the Flying Horses with my son. But our sojourns are usually in the summer. Now it is autumn, and the carousel is closed for the season. Fortunately, the Island offers other diversions. Yesterday, as a hastily assembled clean-up crew tried to put Vinerd Howse back in some kind of order, the three of us journeyed up-Island--that is, to the westernmost end--and spent a marvelous afternoon walking the breathtaking ancient cliffs at Gay Head in the chilly November air, picnicking in our down parkas at the perfect pebbly beach in the fishing village of Menemsha, and driving the wooded back roads of Chilmark, near the sprawling property once owned by Jacqueline Onassis, pretending not to be on the lookout for the rich and famous. We had dinner at a fancy restaurant on the water in Edgartown, where Bentley charmed the waitresses with his patter. How many demons we exorcised I am not sure, but I saw no sign of the roller woman, who might be a phantom after all, and Kimmer did not mention the judgeship once and talked on her cell phone only twice. And she kissed me quite carefully this morning when Bentley and I dropped her at the airport for her flight back to the mainland in one of the little turboprops that serve the Island. Bentley and I are staying on because . . . well, because we need to. Kimmer has work to do, I have a week or so of leave left, and Bentley needs some rest and recreation. And there is another reason as well. In Oak Bluffs, unlike Elm Harbor, I will never be tempted for a moment to let my precious son out of my sight.

Right now my son and I are preparing to go to the playground; or, more precisely, Bentley is ready, waiting for me.

I am less ready.

I am sitting at the table in our newly cleaned kitchen (full of plastic plates and cups from one of the Island's two A&Ps), the note from my father flattened on the surface, willing its secrets to reveal themselves. In the next room, Bentley is watching the Disney Channel and occasionally waddling to the door of the kitchen and calling, "Dada, paygrown now. You say paygrown!" in the plaintive, self-righteous tone that makes busy parents writhe with guilt. To which I respond with the familiar "Yes, okay, just a minute, sweetheart," which every busy parent uses with equal embarrassment.

Last night, as my family slept uneasily, Kimmer curled protectively around our son, I wandered Vinerd Howse from the foyer to the attic crawl space, searching for something, but I do not know what. I need to know what is going on. I need a clue.

Unfortunately, the most obvious clue, my father's note, remains gibberish:

My son,

There is so much I wish I could share with you. Alas, at the present moment, I cannot. I have asked a good friend to deliver this note should anything befall me; if you are reading my words, one must assume that something has. I apologize for the complexity of this method of contact, but there are others who would also like to know that which is for your eyes only. So, know this much: Angela's boyfriend, despite his deteriorating condition, is in possession of that which I want you to know. You are in no danger, neither you nor your family, but you have little time. You are unlikely to be the only one who is searching for the arrangements that Angela's boyfriend alone can reveal. And you may not be the only one who knows who Angela's boyfriend is.

Excelsior, my son! Excelsior! It begins!

Sincerely,

Your Father


The handwriting is unmistakably the Judge's, as is the flowery, overwrought, self-important prose, even the formality of the signature. Quite unexpectedly, my fury at my father threatens suddenly to overwhelm me. If you want to tell me, tell me! I rage against him in my tortured mind, a tone I would never have selected in life. But don't play these games! Jack Ziegler in the cemetery demanded to know about the arrangements. Now, at last, I know for certain that my father actually made some. But I do not know what they are, and this hint, this clue, this post-mortem letter from my paranoid father, whatever it is supposed to be, lends me no assistance at all.

Excelsior? Angela's boyfriend, despite his deteriorating condition? What is all this?

One point is clear: Not-McDermott's mission in Elm Harbor was neither to apologize nor to reassure but, as I suspected, to see whether I know an Angela or not--which means that he and, presumably, Foreman are somehow privy to the contents of this letter. I wonder if the letter was the reason for the destruction of the first floor, except that I cannot quite fathom why they would break into the house, find the letter, and then leave it behind.

Or, for that matter, how the letter got here in the first place. Presumably McDermott, if he was even here, would not have dropped it off. The Judge wrote that he asked a good friend to deliver it should anything befall him. But what good friend would break into Vinerd Howse to drop it off? Why not mail it to my house or bring it by my office? Why not deliver it to . . .

. . . to the soup kitchen?

Can the pawn be connected to the letter? Did my father arrange that delivery as well? I try to remember whether I ever mentioned to my father that I volunteer at the soup kitchen, but my mind offers every answer I could want: yes, I told him; no, I did not tell him; yes, I hinted at it; no, I kept it secret. I shake my head in rich red anger. If he wanted me to have the pawn, wouldn't he have delivered pawn and letter together?

Not that it matters. For my father's note is actually no help at all.

I have a terrible memory for names, but it is good enough for me to be sure that I do not know an Angela, and I have no idea who her boyfriend could possibly be.


From the Hardcover edition.
Stephen L. Carter|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter - The Emperor of Ocean Park

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is also the author of seven books of nonfiction.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Stephen L. Carter, author of The Emperor of Ocean Park

Q: You have written numerous works of acclaimed non-fiction. What inspired you to write a novel and where did you get the idea for The Emperor of Ocean Park?

A: When I was a child, I dreamed of writing fiction, and I suppose the idea has always been in the back of my mind. In the case of The Emperor of Ocean Park, I would have to say that the characters came to me long before the story did. Most of the major people in the book sprang into my mind, almost fully developed, many years ago. In boxes in my bedroom and my study, I still have dusty, dog-eared drafts of earlier efforts to render the same set of characters in several very different stories.

Some of those early stories were lighter than the one I ended up with, and some were quite a bit more dreary. The characters themselves were up in arms. I'm not sure just when I hit upon the story in its final form. I can say, however, that the characters themselves continued to pester me until I came up with a way for them to present their various tales.

Q: What kinds of research—into the Senate confirmation process, the workings of the FBI, the Federal and Supreme Courts, the political lobbying behind judgeships—inform this novel?

A: Although I wouldn't say I planned it this way, many of the subjects in the novel that require expertise are matters about which I have written non-fiction books and essays. For example, a few years ago, I published a book about the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices, and much of what I learned in the course of that project informed this one. Similarly I have written a lot about being black and middle class in America.

But some of what might look real in the book is fiction. And some of what looks like fiction is real.

Q: You have been careful to remind readers that this is a work of fiction—that Talcott Garland, law professor, is not an alter-ego for Stephen Carter, law professor. That said, do you identify with Talcott in any special way?

A: I have had a lot of trouble persuading people that Talcott's story isn't autobiographical, or that the Garland family is not my own, but there is really very little overlap in the life experiences of me and my family, versus Talcott and his.

I'm flattered that people find my characters so realistic that they assume they must be based on real people. But they're not. Like most writers, I hope that readers will find something familiar in all the major characters. Still, the characters are all inventions, and, often, I myself did not know them very well until the book was complete.

I should add that there is absolutely no similarity (other than the facts that both are black and very accomplished) between Talcott's difficult wife, Kimmer, and the wonderful woman I have been blessed to be married to for more than twenty years.

Q: Chess plays a role in this novel. Are you a big chess player? How much research into this topic—specifically "chess problems"—did you do? How does the novel parallel an actual game of chess?

A: I love chess, absolutely love it. I am a life member of the United States Chess Federation. I play less chess now than I did when I was younger, except online at the Internet Chess Club, where I try to visit several times a week. Although I have never been anything more than an amateur in playing strength, I remain a great fan of the game, its players, its history, and its endless possibilities.

The integration of chess into the novel required me to learn about a part of the chess world less familiar to me, the world of the chess problemist, where composers work for months or years to set up challenging positions for others to solve. Fortunately, I had some help from a columnist for a leading chess magazine in making sure that I made as few errors as possible in the way I described this world in the book.

(Incidentally, the fact the number of chapters in the book is the same as the number of squares on a chessboard is a coincidence.)

Q: This is an amazingly intricate plot—full of well developed characters, locations, and multi-leveled conspiracies. How do you craft a novel like this? What is your writing process?

A: Lots of late nights and long walks! Lots and lots of talks with my wife, who read endless drafts and helped me avoid some really bad ideas. And lots of online chess to relax and clear the mind.

I should add that I have come to agree with the many writers who insist that once you get the characters right, the story writes itself. Even in this era when so much fiction tends to be plot-driven, I think believable characters must come first. But they tend to take on lives of their own. I was occasionally surprised by the messes my characters got themselves into, and the indignant, presumptuous way that they demanded that I write a way for them to escape!

Q: In addition to being a novel of suspense and intrigue, The Emperor of Ocean Park is also a novel about families—the things that bring them together and tear them apart; the secrets they keep from one another and the rest of the world; the legacies they pass from one generation to the next. What made you want to explore the idea of family and how did you begin to imagine this fascinating Garland family?

A: Families, nuclear and extended, have always fascinated me. But I cannot begin to explain where the Garlands came from. I think I had the name first, then the Judge, and then it seemed right that he should have children, and that their relationships should be complex and stormy. (In another story that I attempted, the Judge was a White House aide; I also tried him out as a professor; but, in the end, only the judicial role really fit.)

The tale of the family's origin came to me before I quite knew which of several possible stories of the Garland family to tell. I experimented with several possible narrative voices, and several different ages for the characters, before settling into a voice that was a comfortable one, even if it was so unlike my own.

Indeed, that was probably the hardest part of the project: sustaining the narrative voice of Talcott Garland, who sees the world so differently than I do. Imagining the family that whirls around him helped me to visualize life as he understands it.

Q: Did you intentionally set out to explore the issue of race in this novel?

A: I don't think it is possible to write a realistic story about the black experience in America without race—and racism, real or suspected—being a part of that story. There was no need to invent situations in which to explore the problem; once the characters and settings were developed, the tensions that would inevitably arise seemed to me to be obvious.

At the same time, I do not think Emperor is a novel that is mostly about race, and I do not for a moment want any reader to think I see race as a constraint on either the freedom of the characters or my own freedom to create a world for them to live in. I am less interested in how racism influences their lives than how their own strengths and weaknesses do.

Q: This novel has many relationships—familial, marital, and professional—that are destroyed by ambition. Is this novel in some ways a cautionary tale?

A: Definitely. Ambition lies near the heart of the individualism that can be so destructive to the solid values of family and community that make a nation great. All of us have seen people and families sacrificed for the sake of someone else's career.

Yet I am also interested in the virtues that might enable us to withstand the tug of constant advancement. The one who dies with the most toys doesn't really win, and neither does the one who dies with the best resume. The one who has the strongest relationships with family and friends probably doesn't win, either (because life shouldn't be about winning), but, as I hope the novel makes clear, he or she does have a more successful life. And the virtue of faith—of following God, of recognizing our obligations to a source higher than our own will—seems to me the most powerful antidote to the pressure to build resume points.

So I have peopled the novel with characters, like Talcott and his friend Dana Worth, who struggle to find their faith, as well as others, like Rob Saltpeter and Morris Young, for whom faith is already a solid, implacable fact. And then there are the many more, like Kimmer Madison (Talcott's wife) and Marc Hadley (his colleague), for whom the careerist drive dominates.

Q: Religion plays a role in The Emperor of Ocean Park—especially the idea of letting forgiveness come before revenge. As someone who has always been interested in religion in the modern age, was this an idea you set out to explore or something that arose over the course of the story?

A: I myself am a believing Christian, so it would be surprising if Emperor were uninformed by my faith, just as it would be surprising if it were uninformed by my race. And, certainly, much of my non-fiction work has dealt with the application of religion to everyday life. But I did not set out to write about religion. Again, the characters came to me first. The details of their different religious understandings, their different visions of obligation to God, slowly arose and found their way into the story.

I included both an aggressive atheist and an aggressive Christian evangelical, for instance, not because I was engaged in some search for balance, but because the characters suggested themselves and I found a fit.

Q: Talcott remembers distinctly his father's advice to draw a line between the present and the past and then choose the side you want to live on. Good advice?

A: I think it's good advice up to a point, but, like most good advice, should be taken in moderation. I meant for the father's "wisdom," which Talcott recalls at various points in the book to be ironic, even platitudinous, although always containing a grain of truth.

Talcott tells us several times that his father urged the children to draw a line and put the past on one side and the present on the other, which is probably excellent advice if, for example, one is trying to forget a painful love affair. But it is not a rule that should be applied to all situations. Surely the great lesson of the century just behind us is that we should immerse ourselves in the past—not because people in the past were wiser or greater than we, but because there are vital lessons, of what to do and what to avoid, hidden away in history.

So, for example, the difficult moment in which we are now living has historical antecedents. By studying that past, we can learn about our troubling present.

Q: Did you find it difficult to make the transition from writing non-fiction to writing a novel?

A: The process is so very different. The long walks are the same, and so is the need to craft every sentence with care. But I was accustomed to resting my arguments on a rock in my other writing that was missing when I sat down to write a novel: footnotes. With non-fiction, the author, challenged about the plausibility of a particular event, can say, "Well, that's just the way it happened!" Many a novelist will say the same thing, but I am a little uneasy, because what I really mean is, "That's just the way I invented it!"

At first I found this change unsettling, but I have come to appreciate the particular freedom it grants, and the limits of that freedom. Art, I have finally remembered, is as important a human virtue as science.

Q: So what is next? Will we see another novel? More of the Garlands?

A: The next novel is well underway. All I am prepared to say about it, however, is that some of the characters from Emperor reappear. And that I'll probably be taking more long walks!

I also have a number of non-fiction projects in the works. I still see myself first and foremost as a law professor and legal scholar. But if I have written a story that people enjoy reading, if they are satisfied when they are done, yet sorry that it ended, if it diverts them for a while from present tragedies, I will be happy and grateful.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

View video interviews with the author, agent, and editors at Knopf, as they talk about the making and discovery of The Emperor of Ocean Park.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Beautifully written and cleverly plotted. A rich, complex family saga, one deftly woven through a fine legal thriller.” --John Grisham“Rich, rewarding and compelling.... Transports readers into a different world and creates characters that resonate long after you’ve finished it.” --USA Today “Full of energy...high-spirited and fleet of foot.... This novel...lives on the page.... It’s not much of an exaggeration to think that in Stephen Carter the black upper class has found its Dreiser.” -- The New York Times Book Review “A remarkable debut novel.... A rare look into the world of wealthy and established black families.... One is at a loss to name another book...that has sought to convey, with such clarity, such depth of understanding or such cultural analysis, the uniqueness of this experience.” --Los Angeles Times Book Review“A thrilling entertainment.” --Newsday “Rich, rewarding and compelling.... Transports readers into a different world and creates characters that resonate long after you’ve finished it.” --USA Today “A delightful, sprawling, gracefully written, imaginative work, with sharply delineated characters who dwell in a fully realized narrative world.” --New York Review of Books “A dense, dark legal thriller.... Talcott’s clear-eyed observations of his peers, both white and black, give Emperor a social conscience that most books of its ilk lack.” --Time“Closely observed, often affecting.... Written with easy authority...nimble...satiric.... Persuasive.” --The New York Times“A thriller as heady as it is hefty.... Using...wry descriptions of place, power and privilege, Carter keeps attitude spinning.... With Emperor, Carter fills the gap between intrigue and intelligence.” --People “Carter writes powerfully about such virtues as love, faith and forgiveness...and offers a strong commentary on race as seen through the relationships between his characters.” --Philadelphia Inquirer“An admirable debut.... Mr. Carter’s storytelling skills are impressive.” --Wall Street JournalThe Emperor of Ocean Park is an outstanding work of fiction.... Masterfully developed.... A gripping story.” --Newark Sunday Star-Ledger“[Carter] has shed an unblinking eye on an area of race and culture conspicuously absent in popular fiction.” --Miami Herald“A light thriller for the beach; a wicked satire of academic politics; a stinging exposé of the judicial confirmation process; a trenchant analysis of racial progress in America.” --The Christian Science Monitor

Awards

WINNER 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

#1 National Bestseller

“Beautifully written and cleverly plotted. A rich, complex family saga, one deftly woven through a fine legal thriller.” —John Grisham

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Stephen L. Carter’s eagerly anticipated and hugely ambitious first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park.

About the Guide

When the brilliant and controversial black judge, Oliver Garland, is found dead in his study, not everyone believes it was a heart attack. Mystery, secrecy, and misfortune seemed to surround the judge during his life—his daughter was killed in a hit-and-run car accident and his nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected in a scandalous public hearing—and now that’s he’s dead the mysteries only deepen. He has left his son Talcott, professor of law at a prestigious New England university, a set of cryptic instructions regarding his “arrangements.” Mean-while, Talcott’s sister Mariah is certain that their father was murdered and produces one conspiracy theory after another to prove it; his wife, the beautiful, ambitious Kimmer, is up for her own Appeals Court nomination and wants Judge Garland and all his undying controversy to go away; and Jack Ziegler, the menacing underworld figure whose friendship cost the Judge a position on the highest court, demands that Talcott deliver the “arrangements” to him. Caught between a marriage that is unraveling, a university from which he feels increasingly alienated, and a family history from which it seems he cannot escape, Talcott begins the long—and quite dangerous—task of unraveling his father’s sins and secrets.

Yet, The Emperor of Ocean Park is more than a thriller, suspenseful as it undoubtedly is. Carter skillfully weaves into his story an incisive critique of American culture, the complex interactions between law, religion, politics, wealth, race, and family in contemporary society. The result is a sprawling, smart, fast-paced novel that probes not just the mystery surrounding a father’s death but also the larger puzzle of how to live a meaningful life at this particular moment in our history.

About the Author

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is the author of seven acclaimed nonfiction books, including The Culture of Disbelief and Civility. He lives with his wife and children near New Haven, Connecticut.

Discussion Guides

1. How does The Emperor of Ocean Park differ from more conventional mysteries? In what ways is the narrator, Talcott Garland, unlike his counterparts—men like Philip Marlow, Sam Spade, and their descendants—in the prototypical mystery?

2. How does Carter build and sustain suspense throughout the novel? What are the several mysteries Talcott is trying to solve? What discoveries does he make—about his father, his wife, his brother, Jack Ziegler, Justice Wainwright, and others—over the course of the novel? What effect do these discoveries have on him?

3. The issue of race is a recurrent theme in The Emperor of Ocean Park. What is Talcott’s attitude toward race? In what instances is he subject to racial stereotyping? What observations does he make about the white liberal racism he encounters on campus? What racial hypocrisies does he see in his fellow blacks?

4. At the Judge’s funeral, Aunt Alma cryptically tells Talcott that he has “the chance to make everything right. . . . You can fix it. . . . But your daddy will let you know what to do when the time comes” [p. 24]. Like Hamlet, Talcott is charged by his father, beyond the grave, to set things right. In what other ways is Talcott a Hamlet-like character? In what ways must he both fulfill and transcend his father’s demands?

5. What makes Jack Ziegler such a frightening character? In what ways is he more than a mere villain? In what sense is he, as Talcott says, the “author” of the Garland family’s misery?

6. Talcott’s cousin Sally tells him: “You think you’re so different from Uncle Oliver, but you’re just like him. In some good ways, sure, but in some of the worst ways, too. You look down your nose at people you think are your moral inferiors. People like your brother. People like me” [p. 270]. Is she right? In what other ways is Talcott like his father? How is he different from him?

7. What role do the chess problems play in the novel? How do they lead Talcott to uncover his father’s “arrangements”? How are they related to issues of race and power? In what sense is Talcott himself a pawn?

8. When a man calls his house asking for his wife, Talcott thinks: “Odd the way the immediate concerns about a dying marriage can knock worries about torture and murder and mysterious chess pieces right out of the box, but priorities are funny that way” [p. 453]. In what ways is the story of Talcott and Kimmer’s failing marriage—and the larger story of the complex relations in the Garland family—more important than the murder mystery? How are his marital problems related to the mystery he is trying to solve?

9. The Emperor of Ocean Park describes a social milieu rarely seen in American fiction: the black middle class. What does the novel tell us about the highly successful people who make up this class? How are they different from African Americans more commonly encountered in modern and contemporary fiction?

10. Late in the novel, “a wave of fatalism” sweeps over Talcott and he wonders “whether I could have done anything differently, or if, once the Judge died, setting his awful plan in motion, and Jack Ziegler showed up demanding to know the arrangements, everything else was fixed. Whether my marriage, even, was doomed from the day of the funeral” [p. 533]. Is the story fated to end as it does or could Talcott have changed its outcome? What might he have done differently?

11. The Emperor of Ocean Park is not merely a thriller, but also an extended critique of American culture, commenting on issues of family, religion, law, education, race, marriage, wealth, and politics. What do the frequent philosophical digressions add to the novel? What beliefs and values does Talcott Garland try to live by?

12. During a dinner-table argument, Dr. Young asserts that Satan “always attacks us in the same ways. . . . He attacks us with sexual desire and other temptations that distract the body. He attacks us with drink and drugs and other temptations that addle the brain. He attacks us with racial hatred and love of money and other temptations that distort the soul” [p. 346]. How does this perspective illuminate the behavior of the major characters in the novel? Who gives in to the temptations that Dr. Young describes in this speech? Who resists them?

13. How do Talcott’s relationships with his family—with his father, his sister, his brother, his wife, and his son—change over the course of the novel?

14. When Talcott retells the story of how he and his future wife had gotten out of the Burial Ground by crawling through a drainage tunnel, he writes: “Some metaphors need no interpretation” [p. 515]. Is the meaning of this metaphor obvious? How should the escape from the cemetery be interpreted? How is the Burial Ground itself important to the novel’s plot?

15. As the Judge’s secret life is revealed, Dana Worth, a woman who had always admired Oliver Garland, tells Talcott: “I don’t want to say he was evil . . . but he wasn’t just deluded, either” [p. 615]. How should the Judge finally be judged? What drove him to do what he did? Are his actions understandable? Forgivable?

16. When he delivers the eulogy at Theo Mountain’s funeral, Talcott breaks down weeping. “I suppose people think I was crying over Theo. Maybe I was, a little. But, mainly, I was crying over all the good things that will never be again, and the way the Lord, when you least expect it, forces you to grow up” [p. 620]. What are the “good things” Talcott mourns the loss of here? In what ways has the Lord forced him to “grow up”? How have the events of the novel changed him?

Suggested Readings

James M. Cain, Double Indemnity; John Grisham, The Firm, The Summons; Norm Harris, Fruit of a Poisonous Tree; Phillip Margolin, The Associate; Brad Meltzer, The First Counsel; Walter Mosley, Fearless Jones; Jodi Picoult, Plain Truth; Sheldon Siegel, Incriminating Evidence; Lisa Scottoline, The Vendetta Defense.
Stephen L. Carter

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