The Emperor of Ocean Park
In The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen L. Carter blends several literary conventions to produce a unique and highly readable first novel. Part comedy of manners, part novel of ideas, and part mystery-thriller, the book combines richness of detail with a free-flowing and suspenseful narrative. It is, in short, a page turner with depth.
Talcott “Misha” Garland, the book’s narrator and main character, is a distinguished law school professor at an elite East Coast university. He is also a prosperous member of “the darker nation” (African Americans). He has an attractive wife, Kimberly (or “Kimmer”), who is a high-powered attorney under consideration for an appointment to a federal appellate court. The couple has a healthy young son, Bentley, just on the cusp of fluid speech and the apple of Talcott’s eye. Talcott himself is son of the famous (or infamous, depending on how one looks at it) Oliver Garland, the “emperor” of the book’s title. Commonly referred to as “the Judge,” Oliver was once an up- and-coming jurist. Ultimately, he became the subject of painful confirmation hearings which ended disastrously, dashing his hopes for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Oliver then became a thoroughly embittered front man for conservative and right-wing causes as well as a high-priced public speaker available to sympathetic groups. As a father, Oliver Garland was stoic, distant, and hard to please. A figure of mythic proportions, Oliver is the fount of Talcott’s aspirations and accomplishments, but also of his son’s deep-seated self- doubt.
The novel opens with Oliver Garland’s death. At the funeral the reader is introduced to various family members and friends. Talcott’s sister, Mariah, a fabulously wealthy housewife (formerly an investigative reporter), believes her father has been murdered. She proves to be an avid and eclectic conspiracy theorist throughout the novel. Talcott’s television evangelist brother, Addison, on the other hand, seems supremely uninterested in any possible murder conspiracy. (A second sister, Abigail, was killed in a hit-and-run accident before the events of the novel take place.) Toward the end of the graveside service, an appearance is made by the mysterious “Uncle” Jack Ziegler, intricately involved with (and possibly the cause of) the Judge’s downfall.
Ziegler’s bizarre visitation substantially thickens the plot. Much to Talcott’s confusion and consternation, Ziegler demands to know about “the arrangements” made by the Judge in the event of his death. Ominously, he tells Talcott that he and his family are in no physical danger as long as Talcott makes every attempt to uncover and share “the arrangements” with Ziegler. The problem is that Talcott has not the foggiest notion of what Ziegler is talking about. Soon afterward, Talcott is interviewed very aggressively by men claiming to be Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents. He also finds that he is being followed. Hesitantly, clumsily, Talcott begins to unravel the mystery. He speaks with people who knew his father, but no one seems to have all the facts. He seems to be getting nowhere. On the other hand, mysterious clues, including a note from his father and two chess pieces, appear out of thin air.
Meanwhile, Talcott’s marriage and professional life are crumbling. Kimberly, whom Talcott already suspects of having an affair, has no patience or sympathy whatsoever with her husband’s quest for “the arrangements,” particularly in the light of her fragile shot at the much-coveted appeals court nomination. At work, Talcott’s job is jeopardized by both Kimberly’s situation and his own unorthodox behavior following the death of his father. In time, all these matters are settled. The truth about Kimberly’s faithfulness and the fate of her potential nomination are revealed. Talcott’s career crisis is resolved for better or worse. Talcott finally discovers “the arrangements” and comes to know more about his father than he ever dreamed or wanted to know. Conspiracies are revealed (though not any of the ones imagined by Mariah) and revenge exposed. Villains emerge and are...
(The entire section is 1702 words.)