Stephen L. Carter has something to tell you, and it isn’t pretty. It certainly looks attractive, on the surface. Like his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, New England White features an appealing group of characters, almost all of whom inhabit the sleek, insular world of the black bourgeoisie. At the center of the story are Lemaster and Julia Carlyle, who played minor roles in Carter’s debut. In The Emperor, Barbados-born Lemaster is “a small man with a huge mind,” a colleague of the main character Talcott Garland, who considers Lemaster unlikable but admires him all the same. In New England White, Lemaster has been made president of the same unnamed Ivy League university featured in the first novel. Julia is a dean at the divinity school. She drives an expensive car and collects antiques. She has a passion for mirrors.
The Emperor of Ocean Park was heralded in prominent venues by reviewers who marveled at the depiction of a world of black privilege they had no idea existed. In the pages of New England White, Carter anticipates the same reaction to his second novel: “Of the existence of the old families, with their money and education and tradition, most black Americans and nearly all white ones knew nothing. Of the secrets of their exclusive fraternities and sororities, outsiders knew far less than they thought they did.” The characters in both novels not only have money, they have old money; and they measure success in surnames, summer homes, and degrees, just like their white counterparts.
But elite blacks and whites are not mirror images, however much they resemble one another in their ambitions, preoccupations, and indulgences. They intersect without ever truly merging. Hence Carter’s distinction between the “darker nation” and the “paler nation,” terms that course through both novels. Still, within the terms is a larger truth: The two groups are interdependent—darker than whom? paler than whom?—and rely on each other for a sense of identity, whether they like it or not.
New England White is as concerned as its predecessor with the divisions and intersections between the two nations. And, like The Emperor, it employs the framework of a murder mystery to inquire into even larger mysteries: Will racial integration ever be a reality? Barring that, what about an end to racial injustice? The answers begin—and end—with a murder, in a novel that casts a newly cynical light on a deep-rooted social dilemma.
Driving home from a dinner party one evening, Lemaster and Julia Carlyle careen off a back road and discover a corpse. The body belongs to Kellen Zant, an African-American professor of economics at the university, and a former lover of Julia Carlyle. The relationship ended before her marriage to Lemaster, but her attachment to Kellen never waned. That he loved Julia unceasingly and then wound up on the side of a road is not a coincidence.
Who killed Kellen Zant, and why? Everyone suspects Julia knows more than she is telling. She barely has time to mourn her old love before she finds herself fielding interrogations from strangers about the “surplus” Kellen supposedly entrusted to her. This economic term—which is defined for Julia as “the difference between the value of a good to you and what you pay for it”—turns out to be connected to a blackmail plot. That plot in turn points to a central theme of the novel, which Carter develops through recurrent (and sometimes obfuscating) economic metaphors: Human lives, despite so much rhetoric about equality, are assigned very different currencies by the calculating elites of both races.
Like many fictional detectives who are bequeathed the burden of a quest, Julia Carlyle feels she has no choice but to embark on the hunt for the killer. A student of Julia’s daily routines, Kellen has left abundant clues behind (many involving mirrors). Her unwelcome job becomes a fervent mission once she realizes that her oldest daughter, Vanessa, may be implicated in Kellen’s murder, thanks to Vanessa’s interest in yet another murder, 30 years earlier, that becomes interwoven in Carter’s convoluted plot. Julia zips from scene to scene, pursuing Kellen’s circuitous leads while being pursued by various interested parties herself. Disturbingly, all roads lead back to her husband and to his allegiance both to a mysterious black men’s club, the Empyreals, and to his informal college fraternity, the Four Horsemen, or the Fabulous Four.
Lemaster Carlyle promises, at first, to represent a classic American fantasy: the immigrant success story, the self-made man. From Barbados, he is an outsider to the elite American “Clan”—black movers and shakers—that constitutes Julia’s lineage. His clean slate seems to hold out the possibility of a new beginning for Julia personally, and also for the larger story of the powerful black world that claims the couple, in which everyone has known everyone else for generations. But Carter’s novel implies that there isn’t any room for original dramas on the American stage, not when it comes to racial power. Lemaster achieves success in his new country by insinuating himself into an old script—as the interloper in the world of white privilege. He plays the role of the black exception; he is walking proof of progress toward diversity, yet because he is seen as unique, this exception can never really threaten the status quo. In his singularity, he is ultimately most useful in keeping white power intact.
Among the biographies of influential African-Americans, Lemaster’s story is not unique. Condoleeza Rice owes her success to George Bush, and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers had no greater fan than Marlon Brando. In New England White, too, black power exists both because of, and in spite of, white power. It is a delicate dance, and Lemaster Carlyle is, well, a master at it. He not only matriculated at the prestigious university over which he now presides, but spent most of his undergraduate years in the elite Hilliman Suite, courtesy of Jock Hilliman, now dead. Like the Vanderbilt Suite at Yale (the “hidden gem of undergraduate housing,” according to the Yale Daily News), the Hilliman Suite is intended for members of the Hilliman family and their friends. In departing from tradition to invite in a black student, Jock Hilliman set the stage for tremendous repercussions. One suitemate, Max Whisted, has become a U.S. senator, and he is now poised to challenge another of the group, Scrunchy, the incumbent president of the United States, in the upcoming election. Along with Lemaster Carlyle and the deceased Hilliman, these men comprise the Four Horsemen.
The group shares a complex secret history, within which lies the answer to the larger mystery at the heart of Carter’s thriller: Is honest cooperation between the darker and paler nations possible? On the surface, the foursome are a realization of Du Bois’ “talented tenth” model, according to which the top 10 percent of both races would lead the rest to enlightenment. Through what Julia calls his “eerily efficient power of friendship,” Lemaster has maintained bonds with all three of the adolescent fraternity. Yet the glue that binds the brotherhood is ultimately made not of love and interracial harmony, but of something stronger and more enduring: shame, fear, and greed. What unites the Fabulous Four is history: their common intimate history, and the violent history of American race relations.
In The Emperor of Ocean Park, Talcott Garland lamented that the “darker nation” had been “unable to influence the course of a single event in white America.” New England White proposes an answer to that lament. “The darker nation can wield enormous power, as long as we hide our hand,” Lemaster explains. “Public power the Caucasians would never stand for. Hidden power they can do nothing about.” New England White takes a sober look at persisting racial inequalities and concludes that racial justice will never be achieved through positive, collective efforts between black and white; that is a dream for another era. In the wakeful present, powerful whites must be compelled to do right: Carter’s white characters are not overtly blackmailed, but a perceived threat of exposure gives Lemaster unspoken sway over them. Such a dynamic implicates blacks as well. Ambitious black characters harness white power at the expense of their own integrity. Success like Lemaster Carlyle’s has been the product of precise calculations involving a constant appreciation of both his value and his expendability. In his chilling vision, there is little room for human allegiance.
Beneath the facade of a murder mystery, Carter offers a painfully cynical perspective on American race relations, a far cry from Du Bois’ vision of enlightenment, to say the least. Yet as if to soften the harsh message, Carter offers a note of uplift, not about the talented top tenth but about the abandoned bottom half. Unillusioned pessimism about the prospects of elite interracial harmony, his novel suggests, just might spur greater efforts to promote intraracial equality. Julia discovers a foreign country—the real darker nation, where poverty is more prevalent than pedigrees. She comes to see that, when it comes to a human life, there is no such thing as a surplus.