I have a new favorite book. Scott Turow's PRESUMED INNOCENT has ruled the roost at casa de Hartlaub for close to 15 years now, and I'll still read it every year as I have for the past decade and a half. But...I got a feeling when I started reading THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK that my affections were about to be supplanted by this new interloper. Stephen L. Carter, the author of THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK, has written other books, brilliant works of nonfiction with titles such as INTEGRITY and CIVILITY: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, books that test and pull and challenge flabby and unused brain cells, books that cajole and convince and amuse and anger all at once. Anyone who has been exposed to his previous works would expect that his fiction would be of similar quality --- one suspects he would demand no less a standard of himself --- yet it is still a surprise to encounter a work of this magnitude, so riveting, so engrossing.
Here is one example of what Carter does. Judge Oliver Garland has passed an age where his death, though sudden, is not entirely unexpected. Family and friends quickly gather at his home, and Carter does a classic job of describing the range of emotions and personalities that have assembled. The reader, even though barely introduced to most of those present, feels within the space of a few sentences a sense of kinship, a sense of knowing them. It would not be an exaggeration to state that one could go through the cast and find a name and face from personal experience who would be almost exactly the same as each individual depicted in the mourning scene. Carter does this so well that the reader is transported, instantly, into that house, into that room, gazing just over the shoulder of Talcott Garland, the judge's youngest son and the narrator of the piece. Carter does this constantly throughout THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK; wherever Talcott Garland takes us --- be it the law school building of the fictional faux Ivy League school where he is a tenured professor, the cramped, second floor used book store that is home to the chess club where he is an infrequent participant, the cemetery that seems to be the heart of the intricate yet ultimately simple puzzle presented herein --- the reader is left with the feeling of having been there long before the page that puts one there is turned.
The Garland family, and Judge Garland particularly, has known tragedy, from the death of a daughter by a hit-and-run driver to a failed nomination to the U. S. Supreme Court. The weight of these tragedies pressed heavily upon the judge until his dying day. Yet, among his bitter legacies, he has left behind a puzzle for Talcott, dealing with what the Judge, from beyond the grave, has cryptically referred to as "the arrangements." Talcott has no idea whatsoever of what his father is referring to. He begins unearthing clues to his father's past, a task that he is ill-suited for. Talcott is all right angles, with an occasional ambivalence toward his profession and a total devotion to his wife that is, to his puzzlement and sorrow, halfheartedly returned, if at all. These are far more than distractions; these are his life. He is prodded toward finding out what "the arrangements" are by a series of deaths that seem to be closely related to the task that has fallen to him. It soon becomes clear that he must solve the puzzle if he is to preserve the life he has created for himself, even as all that he holds dear is put at risk by that selfsame quest.
Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, makes the same demands of his readers that he undoubtedly does of his students. Lazy thinkers, and readers, will soon be lost in the intricacies of this plot. Industriousness, however, will be rewarded, as it is in so many areas. The sport of Chess runs throughout THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK, from beginning to end, both as a key to the puzzle and as a metaphor to the tale being told. Readers unfamiliar with the discipline need not fear, however. Carter, with the aplomb acquired, no doubt, through the explanation of the complexities of legal theory to incoming skulls-full-of-mush, explains the rudimentary elements of the chess moves involved in the storyline in a manner that will enlighten the novices and leave the grandmasters nodding their heads with approval. And while the length of THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK may appear daunting at over 650 pages, it reads like a book half its length, though the reader, at the end, will wish that it had been doubled. It is ultimately a book that is impossible to put down that tells a tale impossible to forget.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 27, 2003