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Gaining Status With Novel of Black Bourgeoisie

June 18, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seated behind a long table in a book-lined room at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, Stephen L. Carter looks as if he has merely paused between late afternoon classes.

In a sense, he has.

In navy blazer over khaki trousers and comfortable brown oxfords, the Yale law professor, essayist and now novelist is sorting out the unexpected turns of his new life. But, he assures, he will return to the old routines as soon as circumstance allows.

Until it's time for that next class, this man, worth an advance of $4.2 million from Knopf for his freshman fiction efforts, dutifully makes the rounds. Southern California is the most recent stop on his publisher's itinerary. Over the weekend, he wound his way through many a Thomas Bros. Guide quadrant--Beverly Hills, North Hollywood, Pasadena, Brentwood, San Bernardino--primed to talk about his new book, "The Emperor of Ocean Park."

Known widely as a commentator whose politics are as conservative as the brass buttons on his blazer, Carter, 47, with just a fringe of gray edging his goatee, has written a piece of fiction of major proportions, both literally and stylistically. At 657 pages, "The Emperor of Ocean Park" is a sprawling event. Both thriller and thorny family history, it traverses the not-so-dissimilar worlds of old-money African American society in Washington and on Martha's Vineyard, and the drama and ambitions within an Ivy League law school.

Three thousand miles away from the thick of it, Carter settles into a chair before an audience of a couple dozen or so book collectors, journalists, historians, students and lawyers. Among them are representatives from, as his protagonist Talcott Garland would term it, both the "paler and darker nations."

Preparing to read, Carter flips open a gleaming pocket watch and places it next to his book and a slim brown leather journal. "This has been a heady experience," he says, thumbing toward his place. "With the kinds of books I write, I'm used to six people coming to my readings. And that includes the staff--well, at least a person to lock up." It's clear that Carter has just begun to sort through "just how a novelist is supposed to behave."

Word of Carter's big book has been blazing through the book trades, Washington, the film world and African American list serves for more than a year. Says one post on the Afrofuturism list: "Whatever you might think of bruh man's politics, this cat has written one hell of a debut novel. Deft chess metaphor/meditation of the trials of middle-age/ academic satire/riff on the ways of the afrostocracy. Devoured the whole thing last weekend."

As the story opens, Talcott, an African American professor at a prestigious law school, is thrown off balance by the sudden death of his father, Judge Oliver Garland. The elder Garland, a larger-than-life conservative federal judge, quick with the incendiary sound bite, had found his career ascending at a clip until miscalculated political alliances worked to sink his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court; the same unraveled alliances very well might have led to his death.

Tonight, moving further into the book's thick murk of family silence and legal anglings, Carter sketches his story's trajectory along the branches of the Garland family's tree: "Ours is an old family, which, among people of our color, is a reference less to social than to legal status," he reads, bending closer to the text--liberally flagged and inked in his neat black handwriting. "Not all of 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."

Many readers have wondered, as does a gentleman in the front row with neat dreadlocks: "How close is the 'I' in the book to the 'I' of the author?"

Carter, furrowing his brow, leans back in his low chair, as if pondering a tricky analogy. "The only similarity that Talcott and I share is that we are both black. Both are married to black women. And both teach law," he says. "Doubtless," he adds, "there is more of my voice in Talcott's than I would like to be."

But people often feel compelled to play sleuth, and Carter makes it an engrossing pastime. There is crispness to the story that smells and feels like a brand-new currency. Characters transcend the page. And the themes and moral puzzles that Carter often explores in his nonfiction--faith, law, race, ethics, morality--inhabit this book as though they were characters themselves.

But more than Beltway politics or the book's mystery hide-and-seek, what has transfixed many readers is Carter's depiction of the black bourgeoisie.

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