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Mysteries, Fantasies, Bonfires and Vanities

Sunday, July 8, 2007

NEW ENGLAND WHITE

By Stephen L. Carter

Knopf. 556 pp. $26.95

No matter how our ancestors got here -- in the holds of slave ships, through the gates of Ellis Island, via a long trek across the Bering Straits or thanks to a nifty gift of land from the British crown -- on these shores we can all become, for better or worse, something else entirely, at least for a while. In this sense, the United States is the ultimate land of make-believe, and the proud black strivers who populate Stephen L. Carter's new novel are among its most fervent pretenders. As members of the elite vanguard whom W.E.B. DuBois famously called the Talented Tenth, they convince themselves from time to time that our nation's once rock-solid color lines are now paper-thin abstractions that anyone can surmount. Well, anyone with good breeding, a capacious intellect and a briefcase brimming with postgraduate degrees.

And yet Carter's ambitious black achievers are constantly running up against the limits their skin imposes. In the lily-white 'burbs where his characters scheme and toil, African American homeowners are denied access to residents-only beaches, stranded motorists are refused assistance from their suspicious white neighbors, and even law professors harbor "the secret fear of false arrest that every black male in America nurtures somewhere deep within." Little embers of injustice and dissatisfaction are ever present, occasionally erupting into flames. What are we to make of Carter's parade of bonfires and vanities?

Leading his intriguing procession is Lemaster Carlyle, a stalwart black standout who somehow skips effortlessly over every hurdle. In The Emperor of Ocean Park, Carter's first novel, Carlyle smoothly outmaneuvered his rivals for a coveted appeals court judgeship. As New England White opens, he has just settled in as president of the university where he once labored as a mere law professor. His wife, Julia, is a deputy dean of the divinity school.

On a snowy November evening, Julia's long-ago lover, Kellen Zant, turns up dead. He appeared to be on the verge of solving a 30-year-old case involving a dead white girl and an accused black boy conveniently dispatched in a hail of police bullets. Tantalized by clues Zant left specifically for her, Julia resolves to get to the bottom of things, and find Zant's killer besides. The unraveling of this long and convoluted puzzle, as in Carter's previous mystery, is relayed in awkward fits and starts -- the least interesting aspects of a mostly enjoyable novel.

Carter's third-person narration does no favors for his pacing, and we can't help missing Talcott Garland, the earnest protagonist of The Emperor of Ocean Park. Sure, he was prone to pontificating, but he made up for it with his pitiable self-deprecations and fumbling attempts at love that indicated, in the end, he knew about as much as the rest of us. Which is to say, hardly anything. How did Talcott put it? "I have the sense that everybody else shares some crucial bit of knowledge that I have been denied." Don't we all.

But let's be honest: No one should read a Carter novel for the mystery.

We know by now that the author is only partly concerned with whodunit; he'd rather ponder why any of us does the things we do -- especially the bad things. For instance, we know it's wrong to cheat, lie, steal or wound, and yet hardly a day passes in which most of us don't commit at least one of these transgressions on some scale. Human weakness is troubling, fascinating stuff, and Carter has spent much of his career plumbing its depths.

He is, after all, an accomplished legal philosopher who has written persuasively about such cherished virtues as civility, integrity and faith. It's perversely pleasurable, then, to find that his fictional creations are reliably rude, dishonest and deliciously sinful.

Unlike most fictional plotters of high-class intrigue, Carter's connivers are often -- though not exclusively -- black. They're also rich and maybe not so different from you and me. They may talk about cultural heavyweights such as Isaiah Berlin and Martin Buber, but they can wallow in the gutter with all the vigor of an unlettered thug. And, like the gangsta rappers whom Lemaster Carlyle secretly loves (believe it!), they can be fairly obsessed with getting even. In The Emperor of Ocean Park, a prominent black judge sought lethal retribution -- from whites, no less -- for the death of his daughter. In the new novel, black pursuit of quid pro quo unfolds on a far grander scale -- but more on that later.

Like a modern-day version of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Carter casts a critical light on the lifestyles of the black and privileged. In his novels, as in real life, they must demonstrate a voluminous knowledge of mainstream culture -- its history, politics, neuroses, etc. -- while serving tirelessly as spokespersons for and guardians of their own embattled slice of marginalia. Little wonder, then, as Carter dryly notes, "black Americans at the top of their professions seemed to feel the need from time to time to slough off the personas that brought success in the wider, white world -- and to escape the small whispers and slights whose existence they secretly feared -- and hang out instead with the successful of their own nation."

What does "hanging out" involve? The black bourgeoisie of Carter's quaint New England universe are neither charming nor discreet. They convene in social clubs, hold cotillions and swap salacious gossip, all the while "proudly and determinedly preserving all that was useless in African America." Carter ironically dubs these wannabe aristocrats the Clan, whose charter members often spend much of their energy making sure that access is denied to "the wrong sort of Negroes."

The clubs, notes one Clan doyenne, let the black elite "express solidarity with the community without actually having to do anything about it. They can congratulate each other on their achievements, and leave the striving for justice to those they have left behind." This is the Carter-esque skewering we've come to know and love.

But dismissing these hardworking professionals as pampered sell-outs would be far too simple, so Carter wisely endows them with an extra layer of complexity. He reveals that they haven't really turned their backs on pursuing justice; they've simply brought it over to the "dark" side. Which brings us back to Kellen Zant, whose cold, stiff corpse gets the action underway. Zant was certain that his sleuthing would eventually topple the most powerful white men in the country. He didn't live to discover the riveting tidbit that Carter shares with the rest of us: The white men in question -- senators, presidents, fixers -- are just pale imitations of genuine influence. The real juice belongs to a secret, handpicked society of brilliant, coldly manipulative black men. Yes, that's right: black men, large and completely in charge. This shadowy circle, to which Lemaster belongs, is composed of puppet masters whose strings stretch all the way to the highest realms of government, including the Oval Office.

"Their theory is that America gives nothing freely," Carter tells us. "They believe America won't cross the street to help a black man, not if it's not forced to. And so what they do, what they've done for a long time, is gather unflattering information about people in positions of power. Or people who might reasonably be expected to attain positions of power. . . . They don't think the identity of the party in power makes a dime's worth of difference in the lives of African Americans. All that matters to them is whether the people in power are people over whom they hold some influence."

These resolute operatives bring to mind the Seven Days, a similarly vengeance-minded crew chillingly portrayed in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Whenever an atrocity was committed against blacks, one of the Days was obliged to commit a similar brutality against whites. But that group's tit-for-tat missions, although bloody, are mere playground shenanigans compared to the machinations Carter suggests. His successful teasing out of such a bodacious notion -- holding our attention all the while -- is testament to his formidable storytelling. The novel's satisfying conclusion also points out how irrelevant genre labels have become. Technically, New England White is a mystery, but it's a fantasy most of all. Fitting fare, no doubt, in the land of make-believe. ยท

Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World. His latest book is "The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't and Why."

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