Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Emperor of Ocean Park

by Stephen L Carter

Thumbs Up.

Mr. Carter is, from Wikipedia, "an American law professor, legal- and social-policy writer, columnist, and best-selling novelist." I became interested in him after stumbling upon a list of his non-fiction writings which have drawn a following from various political points of view. Since I knew I'd never be able to concentrate on a meaty non-fiction tome at this point, I chose to read his first novel.

The Emperor of Ocean Park is a narrative related by Judge Oliver Garland, an African American law professor at a fictional private East Coast university law school. The plot involves university politics and personality clashes, a federal court nomination, judicial rulings, family relationships, and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Judge Garland's father. But the chief conflict is Judge Garland unraveling a posthumous mystery left by his father.

Although not a fast paced novel, Mr. Carter leaves just enough intrigue to pull the reader through the book. I enjoyed reading about and pondering the sociological struggles the African American characters deal with. Each in their own way.

Although I have had many non-Caucasian friends throughout my life, I am pretty much from a single-cultural upbringing. I was however, taught to look at a person's heart not his skin; and that we are all children of God, made in His image. Is there anyone who wants to think of themselves as racist? But the book made me aware of how even someone who does not think of himself as racist probably carries unconscious racist attitudes and actions. And is that wrong, or merely unfortunate? And is it preferable to pretend we don't carry a certain bias or to put it all right out there? These are the kinds of ideas that Mr. Carter seems to address via his characters and their reactions to each other in a variety of social situations.

So no, the novel is not a quick read. But the plot is compelling, the characters are well sketched and consistent to the personalities Mr. Carter gave them, the personalities are colorful. And the writing itself is rich with both subtle and obvious metaphor and irony and historical allusion. The entire plot revolves around chess related symbolism.

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