Reviewed by Scott Simon
Sunday, July 6, 2008
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf. 514 pp. $26.95
A cabal of powerful men meets in an East Coast mansion, sometime between the first chill of the Cold War and the dawn of the civil rights era. Claret and cigars are served. The men hatch a secret plan. Mighty forces are set in motion. People's lives get moved around like chess pieces. Murders are committed. History is upended. Their plans bear fruit, and the country reels.
Wait -- did you assume that all these ruthless plotters were white?
In Palace Council, Stephen L. Carter revisits some of the same family lines that ran through his hugely successful New England White and The Emperor of Ocean Park in a page-turner that twists through the 20 years between Brown v. Board of Education and the departure of U.S. helicopters flapping like fat geese out of Saigon. The story (sometimes so thick and tricky in its details, you might have to go back a page for every three that you go forward) winds from Harlem to Park Avenue, through Georgetown, Hong Kong, Los Alamos and Saigon, and features a wide range of fictionalized versions of real people: J. Edgar Hoover, Langston Hughes, JFK, Rudolph Abel and Richard Nixon, before he became a ski-nosed Herblock cartoon.
At the center of the story is Eddie Wesley, child of a well-known Boston pastor. He graduates from Amherst and sets out for Harlem, searching for the street savvy to become the Richard Wright kind of writer he admires. Eddie is smart and charming. He quickly becomes the intimate of some of Harlem's highborn African American families (although he's not high-ranking enough to win the hand of the fair-skinned Aurelia, who tells him that family responsibilities trump romance).
Eddie eventually writes a novel called "Netherwhite," about a young man who is refused entrée to Harlem's elite drawing rooms, and undertakes a one-man war of revenge against those who barred the door. White literary critics praise the book as satire, but Eddie knows that he didn't write a send-up. He thinks the reviewers are blinded by condescension: "The critics did not believe, even after reading the novel, that a wealthy black society actually existed in the secret uptown shadows of their own. This was the liberal era in our politics, and the Negro was understood by all to be poor, oppressed, and in special need of white solicitude."
Much of the novel's narrative is driven by Eddie's search for his sister, Junie. She's pregnant and has run off with a radical group called Jewel Agony. In the meantime, Eddie becomes a speechwriter in the Kennedy White House, then a journalist, and finds his old group of Harlem friends rising to strategic positions in the government and the CIA. As he periodically searches for Junie, he wonders if Jewel Agony is a group of guerrilla warriors, or actors in some guerrilla theater play that runs through famous events. But is it plotted by the government, radicals or the shadowy Palace Council?
Although the long story of Palace Council is propelled by loves, longings, intrigues and the murders of many of Eddie's friends and rivals with connections in high places, what draws a reader along is the sharp commentary that Carter, a professor at Yale Law School, plants like runway lights along the way. When Eddie decides to write an article about the romantic popularity of Che Guevara among leftist intellectuals, he wonders "if they really would like to live in the sort of state that successful revolutionaries tended to produce." And it's practically sidesplitting when Carter, one of America's most celebrated academics, dispatches a dinner party guest with the aside "Like many intellectuals, he hated conversations in which he could not shine."
Carter's vignettes of historic figures, including Hughes and Hoover, display both scholarship and imagination. But his portrait of Richard Nixon is pitch-perfect and sympathetic enough to remind us that, in 1960, Nixon was a more outspoken supporter of civil rights than Jack Kennedy (who was as reluctant to irritate the Southern segregationist powers of the Democratic Party as he had been to censure Joe McCarthy). The Nixon of Carter's creation is socially awkward, sensitive to slights, frantic for approval and morally oblivious. He drags Eddie along to pay a midnight visit to students encamped on the National Mall before a huge rally against the war in Vietnam.
"Johnson's war, not mine," Nixon says to Eddie between bites of bacon over breakfast afterward. "Kennedy started it. Doesn't matter. If it happens on your watch -- and we can't abandon them. Cut and run. America doesn't do that. . . . Not a matter of right or wrong. Matter of reputation."
The '60s were a congenial time for conspiracy theories, full of astounding and chaotic events that were too devastating to accept as the work of chance or cranks (although, perhaps pointedly, Carter does not add the Kennedy assassination to the train of events set in motion by the Palace Council). Eddie Wesley is an original and engaging character, a writer who resists being cast as some kind of official ethnic spokesman or predictable polemicist. In the end, he cracks open the mystery of the Palace Council by knowing more about John Milton than he does about Frantz Fanon -- a last twist in a mystery that will give a surprising jolt to your conscience. ·
Scott Simon is host of NPR's Weekend Edition and the author, most recently, of the novel "Windy City."