"Palace Council": Secrets in high society
Yale law professor/novelist Stephen L. Carter's new mystery "Palace Council" incorporates fictional characters from his previous books along with J. Edgar Hoover, Langston Hughes and Richard Nixon, as the author manipulates dates and events to meld the Harlem heyday of the 1940s-'50s with John F. Kennedy's Camelot.
Special to The Seattle Times
Stephen L. CarterThe author of "Palace Council" will sign copies of his new novel at noon Wednesday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737 or www.seattlemystery.com/). He will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday in
the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library. Sponsored by the Washington Center for the Book
and the Elliott Bay Book Co.;
free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
by Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, 510 pp., $26.95
Stephen L. Carter is a Yale Law professor who is a prolific, strong writer in his field, as well as creator of a densely populated, fascinating fictional landscape of America's "darker nation," as he terms it. His earlier novels, "The Emperor of Ocean Park" and "New England White," transported readers into the heart of a hidden world of Harlem society salons, a Martha's Vineyard enclave of the black upper-middle class and the intricate rivalries among faculty in the Ivy League.
Carter's new novel, "Palace Council," is a well-lit showcase for his considerable strengths — as well as a glaring spotlight on his few weaknesses as a novelist.
"Palace Council" incorporates some of the same Garland family characters as his previous books, and roams even farther afield, as the author manipulates dates and events to meld the Harlem heyday of the 1940s-'50s with Kennedy's Camelot, a clever sleight of hand that whacks a decade or more out from between these epochs. A further strength is Carter's usual exploration of obligation — that old-fashioned yet powerful notion of duty to one's family and community. He also, typically, still refuses to tie everything up in tidy bows, recognizing that decisions made about marriages, careers, wars and political movements rarely sort themselves out neatly.
As in Carter's earlier novels, an unusual sort of literary feminism flows through the "Palace Council." The book appears, at first, to be about a man, but the many women in his life prove to be the living, breathing characters who linger in one's memory.
In this case, protagonist Edward Trotter Wesley Jr.'s life is defined less by his renowned preacher father; his own best-selling, iconoclastic writing; or his many improbable brushes with death. His story is more delineated by the lifelong love of the brilliant Aurelia and of his sister Junie, whose disappearance into a militant-underground life launches him on a global search. The Palace Council of the title is a secret and powerful male society — and a shadowy mystery that Eddie spends decades trying to unravel. That aspect of the story makes the strength of Carter's female characters even more unexpected.
As the intoxicating promise of the 1950s grows into the radical '60s, and Eddie moves from smart Amherst undergrad to Boy Wonder writer on the Harlem society circuit, he begins a long, colorful journey:
"Once his short story began to open doors, Eddie could not bear the thought of not walking through them. Given the chance, thanks to his erudition, he glittered. He traveled upward. He could quote Shakespeare and Dante by the yard, but also Douglass and Du Bois. He could tease. He could charm. He could flatter."
Eddie's celebrity and an early surprise encounter with a corpse clutching an inverted cross, along with his sister's disappearance, connect him with the likes of a well-manicured J. Edgar Hoover, a wise Langston Hughes and a likable if clichéd Richard ("Let me make one thing perfectly clear") Nixon. Whatever stretch of the imagination these encounters require, they do place Eddie in some of the most riveting moments of modern American history.
As Carter continues to forge strong characters and situate them in this historical context, he also gives greater rein to his habit of excruciatingly slow pacing and over-the-top plot twists. While this might not deter folks overmuch (see record-breaking stats for "The Da Vinci Code" as proof of book-buyers' tolerance) such indulgence detracts from Carter's otherwise original, intelligent storytelling.
With someone as successful and productive as Carter, it is hard to imagine an editor will come along with enough nerve to wield a big red pencil over his next manuscript, but here's hoping. Energetic thatching of his prose would be an excellent thing. His memorable characters — and huge number of dedicated readers — deserve nothing less.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
is a writer living in Portland.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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