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Book Review

Mystery, politics in historical context

Stephen L. Carter tells the story of a writer on a quest. Stephen L. Carter tells the story of a writer on a quest. (ELENA SEIBERT)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Julie Wittes Schlack
July 17, 2008

Palace Council
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, 513 pp., $26.95

After thoroughly enjoying "The Emperor of Ocean Park" and "New England White," Stephen L. Carter's astute and at times satirical thrillers, I was looking forward to his newest novel, "Palace Council." Set in the seminal two decades preceding the mid-1970s and promising to flesh out the formative years of some of the protagonists in his two prior works of fiction, this book had the potential to establish Carter's trilogy as a rich and readable portrait of the black bourgeoisie in this country, and of the various forces that shaped and sought to exploit it.

Instead, it concentrates all the worst aspects of Carter's writing: a plodding pace that makes his long books feel even longer, and plots built around conspiracies that lack the complexity or clarity to support the duration of the read. In his previous novels, Carter's detailed, incisive portraits of the elite of the "darker nation" - the judges, bankers, politicians, and academics - more than compensated for these shortcomings. But in "Palace Council," this almost domestic approach works against his purposes as he tries to tell the story of some of the most crucial years in this country's history through the eyes and encounters of a very small, monomaniacal cast of characters.

Protagonist Edward Trotter Wesley Jr. is a writer and (like Carter himself) an iconoclast. He's a single-minded fellow, committed to his writing, to Aurelia - the (married) love of his life - and to his sister, June. His romantic rival dies and his sister disappears fairly early on in the book, setting Eddie off on a 20-year quest to achieve literary success, win Aurelia back, and find June. Triangulating between his radical, underground sister and his wealthy, connected, Republican lover, Eddie charts a course that takes him to Harlem for the sunset years of salon society in Sugar Hill and Strivers' Row, to Vietnam on the eve of the Tet offensive, to Washington, D.C., for the massive antiwar rally following the Kent State shootings. As he tries to piece together a patchwork of mysterious deaths, beatings, and coded messages, we see him, or Aurelia, engaged in business meetings, social engagements, and late-night chats with everyone from Langston Hughes and Adam Clayton Powell to J. Edgar Hoover, Joe Kennedy, and a surprisingly thoughtful Richard Nixon.

Eddie is not only a man with a mission, but a lightning rod for the intellectual and political establishments. His writings make him the darling of alternately the right and the left, and afford Carter, an accomplished scholar and political commentator, the opportunity to offer trenchant observations about Nixon, Vietnam, and both political parties' courtship and abandonment of African-Americans.

These interesting but brief political riffs serve as stakes that valiantly try to keep this billowing novel upright. But sadly, it droops and sags because Eddie and Aurelia - unusually flat characters to begin with - are stretched too thin, cropping up with famous people in key historical junctures more often than Zelig and Forrest Gump combined. There are only so many history-changing conversations they can be party to and places they can be at once, and as a result, the shattering year of 1968, the King and Kennedy assassinations, the Mexico City Olympics, and the Prague Spring (to name just a few of the transformational events of the 1950s through 1970s) receive only passing, if any, reference. Carter is trying to show us a panorama through a pinhole camera, and the result is a story that's sadly out of focus.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

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