Black and Blue-Blooded

3 minute read
Lev Grossman

Writing about rich white people is no way to make it as a novelist anymore. You’re just one Fitzgerald among many. Rich black people, though –now there’s a subject you can build a brand on. Stephen Carter is a Yale law professor turned novelist whose first book–The Emperor of Ocean Park, a huge best seller–confirmed what many had long suspected: that there are in fact people who are rich and black. His second novel, New England White (Knopf; 558 pages), expands on those initial findings.

Carter writes lengthy mysteries in the manner of Scott Turow, though New England White often feels less like a mystery than just a story told very, very slowly and in the wrong order, thereby generating “suspense.” Our leading couple are Lemaster Carlyle, the icily principled president of a Yale-esque university, and his mercurial wife Julia, a dean at the university’s divinity school. They are, yes, rich and members of what they call the “darker nation.” One snowy night they discover a corpse by the side of a road. It is that of Kellen Zant, a faculty member, also Julia’s former lover, also black.

Carter has successfully identified the hot social science du jour: Zant was a celebrity economist, a hybrid of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Freakonomics genius Steven Levitt. Zant was still hung up on Julia, and he left behind some coded clues for her to indicate who bumped him off. Meanwhile, the U.S. President is running for re-election, and Lemaster may have some dirt on him–they were college roommates–and the Carlyles’ brilliant daughter Vanessa is obsessed with a cold case from 30 years ago involving a white girl who may or may not have been killed by a black teenager. It will all, the reader can be grimly certain, fit together and will somehow dovetail with the old amusement park haunted by p-p-p-pirate ghosts.

New England White sounds reasonable enough on paper, as it were. So why is it so hard to get through? Early suspicion falls on Carter’s prose–his characters unblushingly utter lines like “You can’t talk to me that way!” and “It’s time for the lies to stop.” (Of her deceased economist, Julia thinks–cue English horn–she “had not even said goodbye.”) Plot “twists” arrive at the end of every chapter with metronomic regularity. A certain clockwork orderliness befits any work of this genre, but the relentlessness of the surprises becomes deeply unsurprising. New England White is being marketed as a literary beach book, but it’s neither literature nor very much fun.

The real problem, though, is how little insight Carter gives us into his ostensible specialty, the world of privileged black society, a realm of clubs and connections and incestuous politics with its own nasty prejudices: “As her grandmother used to say, there are our black people and there are other black people–and all her life Julia had secretly believed it.” The shock value of this revelation wears off early, leaving little to sustain the reader through the 500 or so pages that remain. The only takeaway seems to be–to paraphrase that famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway–that rich black people are different from rich white people. They’re black.

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