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The Gilded Ghetto

THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK, A Novel, By Stephen L. Carter, Alfred A. Knopf: 672 pp., $26.95

June 02, 2002|JONATHAN SHAPIRO | Jonathan Shapiro is a writer for the television drama "The Practice." A former federal prosecutor, he is an adjunct law professor at USC.

Law professor Talcott Garland is the privileged son of legendary attorney and Republican stalwart Oliver Garland. Well papered and connected, the Garlands are so established a family that when they summer at their home on Martha's Vineyard, they try to avoid the Kennedys.

Members of the nation's aristocracy, important people given over to public service and profitable private enterprise, they glide along the "Cambridge-Washington axis" through prestigious universities, law firms, investment banks and government posts. They seem fated to do stimulating work and lead purposeful, perfect lives.

But the Garlands are not what they appear. Much that is impressive is facade. Much of the noble public service reflects a secret need to compensate for private failings, and when Oliver dies under mysterious circumstances, Talcott is no longer able to deny what he has long feared: His family's power and prestige have come at an awful price.

Stephen L. Carter's "The Emperor of Ocean Park" is a remarkable debut novel. A member of the Yale Law School faculty for more than 20 years, Carter has written a number of scholarly works, none of which hinted at his gift for fiction. "The Emperor" is so rich in detail about a particular segment of American society that it only could have been written with unusual access to the subject and by someone with extraordinary powers of observation and expression. Carter has both.

The maxim that every great family fortune is built on a great crime fails to describe the Garlands. They are both victims and perpetrators of many crimes. When Talcott's younger sister is killed by a hit-and-run driver, the autocratic Oliver compounds the tragedy by refusing to acknowledge embarrassing aspects of his daughter's personal life or the family's potential culpability in her demise. That obfuscation of justice protects the Garland name.

Oliver goes on to be appointed to the federal bench, but his stellar career is cut short when his nomination to the Supreme Court unravels in unseemly controversy.

For Talcott, the pressure to live up to his father's enormous expectations and contradictions leaves him emotionally numb and professionally impotent. He remains married to an unfaithful, ambitious wife for the same reason he continues to slog along in an unsatisfying academic career: He is afraid to do anything else. Oliver's death, however, jolts Talcott into action.

Now for the clincher: The Garlands are black. This might surprise you. That I mention it might offend you. That race is relevant and indeed fundamental to the book is undeniable.

"Ours is an old family, which, among people of our color, is a reference less to social than to legal status. Ancestors of ours were free and earning a living when members of the darker nation were in chains. Not all our ancestors were free, of course, but some, and the family does not dwell on the others: we have buried that bit of historical memory as effectively as the rest of America has buried the larger crime. And, like good Americans, we not only forgive the crime of chattel slavery but celebrate the criminals."

In "The Emperor of Ocean Park," Carter, who is also black, provides a rare look into the world of wealthy and established black families, their attitudes toward their history and their feelings about their fellow Americans. One is at a loss to name another book, movie, television program or other work of popular culture that has sought to convey, with such clarity, such depth of understanding or such critical analysis, the uniqueness of this experience.

Talcott Garland is revealed as the other Invisible Man, the successful, accepted black man whose pain is more existential than racial, though the two are never far apart. It is a pain not born of poverty or racism but rather survivor's guilt over his achievement in avoiding the harshest impact of both.

This guilt, made acute as the Garlands rise to become part of the American elite, carries with it an especially heavy burden, one that smacks, to Talcott, of collaboration with the oppressors, self-hatred and tokenism. Because of his success, not in spite of it, he is isolated and uncomfortable in his own skin. He is a slave to the demands placed on him by being a Garland, deprived of even the succor of faith and shared suffering available to less successful blacks.

"I pass a gaggle of beggars, all members of the darker nation, to each of whom I give a dollar--paying guilt money, [my wife] calls this habit of mine. I wonder, briefly, how many of them are hustlers, but this is what my father used to call an 'unworthy thought': You are better than such ideas, he would preach to his children, with rare anger, commanding us to patrol our minds."

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