What I’m Reading Now

Actually this review should be titled “What I finished reading weeks ago and didn’t have time to review.” I bought New England White at the wonderful international terminal in Atlanta on my way back from Louisiana at the end of January. (See “Piney Hills,” January 30.) I’ve been slowed down by eye doc and dentist appointments, a week in Colorado, more dentist appointments, various computer glitches, a brain that didn’t want to function as it should. A few more trips, another computer crash, etc. etc. So here we are, months after I finished reading the book.

The alternative title for this entry should be “New England Depressing.” The author, Stephen L. Carter, fascinates me. He’s a law professor who has published seven nonfiction works on religion, affirmative action, politics. One has the intriguing title Integrity, which seems to be about the general failure of modern American society.

Now he has produced his second murder mystery about elite black folk. New England White rather jumped off the shelf at the airport so I decided to give it a whirl. And I had a hard time putting it down.

The plot is hellishly complex, but the action moves so fast that the ins and outs don’t get in the way. In simplest form, it’s the story of Julia Carlyle, wife of the first black (not African American as he’s West Indian) president of a thinly disguised Yale University. He has longstanding ties to the sitting U.S. president and a powerful senator. As the book opens Julia (nickname Jules) and Lemaster (nickname Lemmie) have been experiencing trouble with their older daughter, the third of four children, who has set fire to her father’s car and is fixated on a thirty-year old murder. Another murder lands almost literally in their laps as they encounter a body by the side of a snow covered road on their way home to the exclusive (white) suburbs. Professor Kellen Zant was a brilliant and popular economics teacher, and Carter lards complex economic theory along with some religious terminology (“Christology or soteriology”) into this tale of woe and intrigue. Another murder further complicates things.

As fascinated as I was by Julia’s attempts to find out how Zant died, I became more and more depressed as I read. Julia, you see, is a descendant of the Talented Tenth, accustomed to privilege and able to live outside of white society. Here they are called “the Clan,” which seems a bit over the top. Light, bright Julia broke one of the cardinal rules when she married a blue-black man but redeemed herself somewhat because he achieved such high status in academia. They attend an Episcopal church, the type that withdraws from the Anglican Communion because openly gay Gene Robinson has been consecrated bishop. And she’s a member of the Ladybugs, which practices charity but concentrates more on designer clothes and handbags than on good works. These elite are also prone to the worst kind of vicious gossip. I kept thinking that with a controlling father and self-absorbed mother, no wonder poor Vanessa torched Daddy’s car. As engrossing as the plot is, I found I didn’t care what happened to Jules or Lemmie. But I did feel a bit of a twinge for poor Vanessa and the other children.

And Julia set my teeth on edge with her noblesse oblige attitude toward the white working-class folk of the suburb, all the while raging against the wounds delivered by the racist old Yankees. She does have a couple of redeeming features. She calls the area where they live the heart of whiteness, and she and her family refer to white people as the “paler nation.” That term reminded me of a friend of my mother’s who always referred to whites as “those of the other persuasion.”

On the criticism side, I’ve got a serious argument with Carter’s disclaimer that any resemblance to people, events and locales was “entirely coincidental.” The university is situated Elm Harbor (New Haven’s nickname is the Elm City). The shops in tony Tyler’s Landing, which the Carlyles integrate with a McMansion on the hill, look and sound very much like Guilford, Leete’s Island, Stony Creek and so forth. Just as in the novel, there were dead zones for cell phones until recently when the cell phone purveyors began renting church steeples because the residents didn’t want to look at those big silver towers. The Ladybugs sure sound like the Links.

Finally, reading New England White I kept wondering if Carter had deliberately lifted part of his plot from the life of some Yale undergraduates of more than 150 years ago. This only came to mind because I had just finished Joseph Hopkins Twichell in which Twichell and his friends fought with a group of New Haven firefighters. (See “A Man for All Seasons,” February 20.) One of the “townies” died, and the incident came back to haunt the Yalies years later. The similarity would have escaped me, except that a character in New England White carries the last name of one of Twichell’s friends.

All in all, I’ll give Carter a B+ for plot, a B+ for character development, and a C for social commentary. The people in this novel are well defined, even if they are rather loathsome. Now I’ll have to read his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, which is apparently just as complicated and features Jules’s “best friend” Kimmer as the leading lady and her husband as the protagonist. This first novel has the advantage of being set on Martha’s Vineyard, which will remove it from the “not in my backyard!” feeling that I had with New England White.

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