New England White
by Stephen L. Carter
Published by Vintage Contemporary
640 pages, 2008
School for Scoundrels
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Yale University law professor Stephen L. Carter is obsessed by power, particularly of the backroom variety. In New England White, his thickly layered whodunit (originally published last year, but only recently released in paperback), he pits Julia Veazie Carlyle and her husband, Lemaster, against a shadowy, frightening group out to quell the release of certain information, which has ramifications all the way up to the White House. That the shadowy and powerful are a tiny African-American elite adds a level to this mystery that many others lack: a glimpse into a world rarely seen by whites.
This very long book -- 617 paperback pages, not including the teaser from Carter’s latest, The Palace Thief -- opens on a snowy New England evening. Lemaster, president of a prestigious New England university (the same one used in Carter’s first novel, 2002’s The Emperor of Ocean Park), is driving the couple’s Cadillac Escalade home from yet another university function. The night is snowy and slippery; the SUV spins out on remote Four Mile Road. As an annoyed but unhurt Julia awaits the tow truck, she spots something in a nearby ditch. Curious, she wanders over, only to find the body of professor Kellen Zant, an economics genius, consultant to the powerful and, not incidentally, her former lover.
From there this novel takes off at a run, introducing countless characters and their associated plot lines, creating a multifaceted novel that dares you to follow it. Just as you think you’re getting a grip on the thing, it slips away, the book as eel. Perhaps jealous Lemaster organized Kellen Zant’s killing -- but maybe not, because there’s this Tony Tice fellow, a very slimy lawyer. And what about Scrunchy, Lemaster’s old college roommate, who’s now president of the United States? Or Senator Malcolm Whisted and his nervous wife, Maureen? Malcolm is running against Scrunchy, and Lemaster’s cousin, Astrid Venable, a Senate aide, leans heavily on Lemaster for dirt about the commander in chief. She ends up being fired.
Life within the Carlyle family is no less complex. Julia all but ran into Lemaster’s arms after a tempestuous relationship with Kellen. Kellen, despite his womanizing ways, continues his pursuit of Julia, even going so far as to accept a teaching position at the university where her husband serves as president. Lemaster is a brilliant, practical, emotionally distant man who, though highly protective of his wife and family, leaves them wondering about his love for them, which appears dutiful at best. Lemaster does a great deal of lying by omission, a fact of life Julia compliantly accepts through their 21 years of marriage and four children. But when their second child, 17-year-old Vanessa, torches Lemaster’s car (he isn’t in it), things go south. Troubled, intelligent Vanessa is obsessed with the 1973 murder of Gina Joule, the beautiful teenaged daughter of a professor. Vanessa spends inordinate amounts of time researching that homicide, which was “solved” by implicating a young black man, who was shot by police.
Carter’s story is told in third-person, through Julia’s eyes. A biracial woman who never knew her white father, Julia is descended from the unfortunately named Clan, the cream of elite black society. Her grandmother Amaretta ran a famed Harlem salon; her mother, Mona, is an activist. But Julia is none of these: she is comfortable in their very white New England town, comfortable with her children attending the best schools, where their friends are white, living in their large, fine home, driving their politically incorrect, gas-guzzling vehicle. Her relationship to her past, and to the black underclass, is uneasy. Kellen’s death, with its links to Vanessa and unsettling clues, only exacerbates her uneasiness, ultimately spurring her to action.
If this sounds like a breathless rush, it is, and I’m leaving much of the story out. Initially, the book was a page-turner, clipping along; but the multitude of characters, each carrying his or her own crucial bit of evidence, eventually lost me. There’s Mary Mallard, muckraking writer; Mitch Huebner, crazy snowplow driver; and the denizens of Elm Harbor, who nurse the festering secrets surrounding Gina’s death. I am leaving out the university personnel and their politics, so amusingly skewered by Yale educator Carter. There are the black clubs Julia and Lemaster belong to, Ladybugs and Empyreals, respectively, and the power these clubs wield in both black society and what they call “the paler nation.”
Eventually, I gave up trying to follow everything, simply allowing the book to wash over me. Carter is a nimble writer, illuminating racial differences with a wry humor that staunchly avoids anger: Julia, pursued by the bad guy, bangs on doors in a white suburb, only to be turned away despite her middle-aged, wealthy appearance. When Julia takes Astrid to lunch at an exclusive, members-only club, the women briefly amuse themselves by chatting on the steps, forcing the snooty white members around them to reach the front door. And, Lemaster, so uptight and moral, has a weakness for blasting rap of the most obnoxious caliber through his SUV’s speakers.
Carter is wonderful with names. Character names aren’t something people generally give much thought to, but like Stephen King, Carter’s skill with this element roundly illuminates his fictional community: Jock Hilliard. Gina Joule. Rick Chrebet. Petey Wysocki. Cheryl Wysocki, Petey’s mother. And Bruce Vallely, the campus cop who ultimately cracks the case (and deserves an honorary Ph.D. for it).
The strength of New England White makes it well worth reading, if you’re willing to hang in there. Carter’s informed take on economics, politics and, above all, race, are trenchant, compelling and timely. Just don’t mistake it for beach reading. | August 2008