The Emperor of Ocean Park
Stephen Carter
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The Emperor of Ocean Park
Stephen Carter
672 pages
May 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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On a superficial level, The Emperor of Ocean Park has a lot in common with John Grisham’s The Summons. Law plays the starring role in both plots: the protagonists are law professors who have to deal with the secrets and the true legacy of their fathers. Both fathers were both judges and powerful, greatly admired men who left something undone or unresolved in their lives for their sons to complete. But they left no instructions, just vague "arrangements" and "wills". The heroes must solve the puzzle and decode the clues in order to tie up the loose ends their fathers left behind if they are to move on with their own lives.

But while, Grisham tells his story in 320 pages, Carter chooses to embellish his work, throwing in social differences between blacks and whites (referring to them as members of either "the paler nation" or the "darker nation"), his love of lecturing, and his affinity to words. There are many subplots in this book and running through the novel; he uses the game of chess, both metaphorically and symbolically. The references and observations are brilliant and erudite. It quickly becomes clear that Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, intends this book to be like an assignment, and readers -- like his students -- must pay close attention to detail (if you are looking for quick, easy read, this is not it). A dedicated professor, committed to the propagation of law, he is often disappointed at the focus of his students.

"Most of our students crave only the credential award, not the knowledge we offer; and as generation after generation, each more than the last, views us as a merely vocational school, the connection between the desire for the degree and the desire to understand the law grows more and more accentuated."
The Emperor of Ocean Park is what Oliver Garland, a prominent black judge, is nicknamed. A larger than life character, Garland is both loved and hated for his strength of convictions, integrity and controversial stands. Tragedies shadow him like an ill-fated Greek hero: his beloved daughter Abby dies after a senseless hit and run accident, and his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is plagued by scandal. Ultimately he withdraws and lives out the rest of life, bitter and detached from his family. And he appears to be paranoid; hinting that he has "enemies" who want to see him destroyed.

Talcott Garland, Oliver Garland's younger son and a law professor, has inherited more from his father than he will care to admit. "…My siblings and I have all been defined in part by our rebellion against his {his father’s} autocratic rule. And, like most rebels, we often fail to see how much we have come to resemble the very thing we pretend to loathe," he said. He remembers his father as being "a person around whom and through whom things happened…he projected that aura…" Barely on talking terms with his family, Talcott is surprised to find that the mantle of finding "arrangements," interpreting and following them using good judgment and skill has fallen on his shoulders. It’s just like the games of chess father and son would play, except that this turns into a game of life and death -- literally -- and people connected to them start dropping dead like dominos. In order for Tal and his family to survive, he must find the answers and quickly.

It’s hard to put The Emperor of Ocean Park into a category such as a legal thriller, which it should be under because of the strong foundation of law, conspiracies, denial of justice and challenging ethical issues. But with the snapshots of the two privileged worlds of the African-American upper class and the Ivy League law college, it could be a social commentary on race and the politics perpetuated by academics. On another level, it is quite simply the protagonist‘s search for the father he never really knew and the understanding of the obligations that family and society place on each other.

Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He has already written many works of non-fiction; this is his first attempt at fiction.

© 2002 by Sonia Chopra for Curled Up With a Good Book

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