PALACE COUNCIL By Stephen L. Carter. Knopf, New York, N.Y. July 2008. 528 pages. $26.95 hardcover.
There are some thrillers — The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon come to mind — where the plot is never going to make much sense, but for the reader to bog down on this point is to miss a jolly good ride. Stephen L. Carter’s new novel, Palace Council, is just the sort of book that keeps you turning pages — all 500-plus of them — until the clock blinks 3:28 a.m. in digital pixels and you force yourself to turn out the light.
Mr. Carter’s third novel is packed with politics and social change spanning the years from 1952 to 1975. Famous figures carry the story as sturdily and plausibly as do the fictional characters. Langston Hughes is always good for brandy, cigars, a good story and an entree to Harlem’s top salons. Joseph Kennedy is bearded in his den to provide a piece of clandestine information. J. Edgar Hoover is the ogre he’s always been cracked up to be. Richard Nixon pops in and out of the action like any dysfunctional family’s embarrassing Uncle Dick who is bound to spill his drink and make ill-conceived remarks about minority groups; you hope no one invites him the next time around, but you can’t help feeling sorry for the old guy.
There’s an important reason why Mr. Carter’s trio of books, starting with The Emperor of Ocean Park (yes, our Ocean Park right here in Oak Bluffs), released in 2003, and followed by New England White in 2007, have received so wide an audience and the attention of book critics everywhere, and that is because this professor of Yale Law School is the Tolstoy of elite African Americans.
His first two books, and now, equally, the third, cast not a spotlight, but a soft Tiffany glow on upper crust black families of the eastern seaboard who live in old mansions and vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. They’re deeply entrenched in both Ivy league academe and Washington D.C. politics climbing all the way up to the oval office.
No affirmative action is required here; these black aristocrats have fulfilled the dictates laid down by Ward McAllister in the Gilded Age for the making of a gentleman: First comes the rough-hewn entrepreneur raking in the big fortune, then the heir to consolidate the fortune, and finally the heir’s heir who wears privilege like a second skin. For Americans who believe the only rich African Americans are sports stars or rap idols, a novel like any of Stephen Carter’s is an eye-opener.
The black elite of Palace Council has been graced with the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Mr. Carter writes: “There was at this time a Harlem tradition of judging class by where people disembarked from the A train. If you got off at 125th street, you lived in the Valley, and were discounted accordingly. If you got off at 145th or 155th, you lived on Sugar Hill, the highest point in Harlem, among the truly wealthy of the darker nation. The Valley was vast, and Sugar Hill was small. In between the two, like a demilitarized zone, sat Striver’s Row, policed by legions of the upwardly mobile who had not yet made it to the top.”
This is the kind of primo exposition that makes Palace Council so rich a reading experience. Like an Afro-inflected Masterpiece Theatre, the saga takes us into the drawing rooms of Sugar Hill’s society matrons whom Adam Clayton Powell dubbed “light-skinned czarinas.” Crashing these gilded doors is young Edward Wesley, an aspiring writer, with parentage long on quality and short on money. His talent lifts him handily out of his job running errands for a vicious Jamaican gangster named Scarlett, and before you can say James Baldwin, Eddie has two National Book Awards under his belt and speaking engagements galore.
If he hadn’t, at the very beginning of his career, tripped over a corpse in the eerie gardens of Madame Jumel’s mansion in Sugar Hill, Eddie might have been forced to live out his life as a mere hugely successful novelist. He might have been spared the time and trouble of racing around the world in search of his sister, Junie, a brilliant law student who may have been snatched by an evil cabal whose talons appear to be imbedded in the upper echelons of the American power structure.
The back story shimmers around a summer night in 1952 at a home on Winnemack avenue in Oak Bluffs. Here the author runs into a spot of trouble from actual Islanders. If Stephen Carter had consulted one of us about where to situate an old monied WASP domicile for a dark and secret meeting that has the potential to shake the world, would pleasant little Winnemack with its elderly capes and ranches have fit the bill? Maybe a better choice would have been a sprawling old beach house in Harthaven. Or a classic Victorian with a big Gothic spire frequently sizzled by lightning.
Local cavils aside, Palace Council is filled with social, historical and political insights, spiked with dead bodies, missing letters, abductions by government goons, in other words, danger on every page. In the tradition of Shakespeare, Carter knows instinctively that erudition is dandy as long as the fancy masks are routinely whisked aside to reveal the death’s head underneath.
Stephen Carter, like the members of the upper class black milieu of which he writes, has also spent untold summers vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. After The Emperor of Ocean Park was released, many of us assumed Mr. Carter owned a summer home, if not on Ocean Park, then somewhere close by. Although he hasn’t yet entered our property tax rolls, his years of house hunting have finally produced a choice, and preliminary papers have been signed. Elaborating on this happy outcome, his publicist at Knopf writes to us, “He won’t know the final result (if it will have closed or not closed) before your [book review] deadline.”
No other details were forthcoming, but my guess is that the future Carter home is on Winnemack avenue.
Stephen Carter will sign copies of Palace Council at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 30, at Edgartown Books.