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Book Review: New England White – A Novel by Stephen L. Carter

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When it comes to escapist summer reading, there’s nothing quite as gratifying as a little mid-winter Nor'easter gloom, especially when a whodunit is kicked up a few literate notches. In New England White, the corpse at the core of this unflaggingly enthralling and incisive dissection of the black upper class and black professionals is Professor Kellen Zant, a brilliant economist with some highly ruinous political secrets – whose murder may affect the upcoming and bitterly contested race for the White House.

Not quite ready to go back to non-fiction yet, Stephen L. Carter provides his second novel, after 2002’s best-selling The Emperor Of Ocean Park, and packs it with wit, richess, and a good dose of page-turning propulsion. For such a purpose, New England White allows a couple of secondary characters from Emperor — affluent and new Elm Harbor residents Lemaster Carlyle, president of a highly esteemed New England university and old friend of the President of the United States, and his wife Julia, dean in the university's divinity school — to take center stage for a seamlessly interwoven narrative that masterfully brings together several disparate subplots and elements.

When Lemaster and Julia are driving home one dark and wintry night, they encounter the dead body of Kellen, a former lover of Julia. The discovery and subsequent and apparent cover-up has implications not only for the presidential election and the Carlyle marriage – "living with Lemaster," Julia thinks, "was like climbing Everest every day. Without oxygen." It also has consequences for the sanity of their precocious but troubled daughter, Vanessa, while, in an amazingly convoluted but fascinating series of events, nearly everything can be linked to a secret diary that may or may not exist, and a murder of a local teenage girl 20 years ago.

"Maybe it was better not to care," Julia ponders about her past, and about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Kellen, who had been trying frantically to communicate with her right before his death cut short any full conveyance. "He had no right to drag her back into his life, even by dying and leaving a puzzle behind: he had wounded her, nearly killed her, and he had no claim on her."

But Julia can’t help but care or get involved — if not so much for the challenge in solving the maddeningly cryptic clues left by Kellen or in facing up to the political machinations of her husband, then for the welfare of Vanessa. Murder mystery, family drama, crime caper, political intrigue, police procedural, conspiracy tale — many of these genres and specialties were farmed out to a wide variety of characters, and Carter, seemingly impishly, took us along for these diversionary stretches — but Julia shows an increasing willingness to do a little extracurricular sleuthing of her own.

If Emperor was tinged with a little Grisham and Turow, New England in full foliage demands to be seen with a little Dan Brown, for its Da Vinci Code-style cliffhanger chapters and secret society sideshow; Stephen King, for a couple ethereal characters and a creep show backwoodsman; and a little Tom Wolfe for a suburban social swirl that sees "Six years on Hunter’s Meadow Road, where the houses stood continents apart, and Julia had learned the names of perhaps two families in the near vicinity. Here was the secret segregated truth at the heart of integration." She goes on, "No vandalism was committed. No crosses were burned. No epithets were uttered. The family was not attacked. It was simply ignored."

Of course, Carter, Yale Professor of Law and author of seven books of nonfiction, including Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1993), and Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy (1998), sticks pretty much to the fictional matter at hand and seems to be having fun in experimenting with style and character. But there are times when he refreshingly yields to some more direct social and political impulse, ranging from a bit of skewering of academic doublespeak (this from his most levelheaded character), to a demonstration of lingering but overt racism and humiliation encountered by Julia when she’s inexplicably banned from her longtime neighborhood beach – by an old student of hers, yet.

It takes all kinds, as Carter well knows and as he well illustrates in his deeply-etched and memorable secondary characters, from Dickensian to rapscallion. There’s ever-faithful Mr. Flew, Lemaster’s indefatigable assistant, so ecstatically happy to be able to finally use his self-defense skills in coming to the rescue of Julia: "Know what? I can see why people go to war. It’s fun!"

Then on the other end of the enthusiasm and enunciation scale is Trevor Land, secretary of the university who, "with his tiny eyes and rimless spectacles and vested suits with gold watch chain, his delicate chin and soft, inept hands," looked like a "foppish time server. His habit of mouthing nonsense words — Yes and Oh, no doubt and I see formed half his vocabulary — confirmed the impression."

Which helps confirm — setting aside the nonsense a spell — the wide appeal of New England White: It’s fun! Oh, no doubt…

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch