Stephen Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park may be the worst book of year. On the other hand, it may, just possibly, be one of the best. Newsweek called it "lead-footed" and "boring," with "cheesy foreshadowing" and "portentous one-line paragaphs," and quoted from the book to prove it. But the New York Review of Books said it was "a delightful, sprawling, gracefully written, imaginative work, with sharply delineated characters." Then it also used quotes to prove it. Meanwhile the daily New York Times said Carter's "thrilleresque narrative convolutions" were "so cliched and bogus that they verge perilously close to parody." The Times' Sunday Book Review, however, said Carter could be another Theodore Dreiser.
So to say Carter's novel got mixed reviews would be putting it mildly. But the question is, why were the critics so aroused? The Weekly Standard thinks it knows the answer. "What's got the book world worked up," it said, "is that Carter got so much money for this first effort."
No doubt there's something to that. Knopf reportedly paid Carter, a freshman novelist, a $4.2 million advance. But I suspect that the critics, both pro and anti, were also carrying around their own political baggage, and that it showed in their reviews. There is nothing in itself wrong with that, and indeed critics, if they are any good at all, always tote baggage. So let us speculate now, even if unfairly, while we trail our own conservative baggage, about how politics might have affected the Carter reviews.
Newsweek first; its review, gratuitously nasty, took up a full page, and pointed out that Carter, a Yale Law School professor, was "a black public intellectual who dissents from leftist orthodoxy -- though he hates to be called a conservative." David Gates, the Newsweek critic, wrote that Carter, "a Christian, opposes abortion, supports school vouchers, [and] has a near-unconditional belief in the sanctity of marriage."
Was Gates annoyed by all that? In enlightened circles, after all, black public intellectuals have no business dissenting from leftist orthodoxy. Liberals punish them when they do. It may be mean-spirited to ask, but is that why Newsweek was so nasty?
Meanwhile the Times' Sunday review, in which Ward Just, himself a novelist of some renown, mentioned Dreiser: The review was convoluted, and began with an analogy about freight trains. But Dreiser or not, it was still hard to tell if Just really believed Carter wrote well, or whether he was only patronizing him.
In other words, was Just doing the white liberal thing? The plot of Carter's novel is too complex to neatly summarize. But suffice it to say that is about an upper-class black family, whose patriarch had died. Ronald Reagan once nominated him to for a seat on the Supreme Court, but then withdrew the nomination. It seems the patriarch was too close to a former CIA thug. Meanwhile the family always summers on Martha's Vineyard, in an African-American community Carter calls Ocean Park. Hence the title of the novel: "The Emperor of Ocean Park."
Just lets us know, at length, that he has met people very much like the characters in the novel. Five or six years ago, he writes, the Vernon Jordans invited him to a birthday party they gave for Bill Clinton on Martha's Vineyard. It seems Just got there late, "for the party-after-the-party, as it were," and that many of the surviving guests, more than half, in fact, were black.
Just says he had never before been in an American living room where white folks were in the minority, and that he felt "inhibited." Meanwhile he pondered. Black people and white people were very much alike, he thought, but surely there had to be differences between them. He felt certain of that, but how could he really find out? It might take more than a lifetime. Just is a very earnest white liberal.
And now the New York Review of Books, where K. Anthony Appiah, in much the most interesting of all the reviews I have read on Carter's work, said it was quite a good novel, and then explained why: It introduces us to a world within a word; it makes accurate observations; and it is taken in by neither the left nor the right. You may think of it as nonpolitical. You may also think of Appiah that way, too. Whatever his political baggage, he carries it very lightly.
Appiah's mother was a daughter of the late Sir Stafford Cripps; his Ghanian father was a member of Africa's liberation generation. Appiah himself is an academic, a philosopher, who left Harvard to teach at Princeton. When he did so, however, he also made it clear that his departure had nothing to do with the dispute between the president of Harvard and the Afro-American Studies Department. Some of the pampered professors there were also threatening to move to Princeton; they said they felt "disrespected."
But Appiah, apparently, did not buy into any of that, and he seems to be very much his own man. It showed in his review, and if he thinks Carter deserves to be read, he probably should be.