Stephen L. Carter

"Palace Council"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew JUL 10, 2008)

"You have to understand, Eddie. The Junie you thought you knew was not the only Junie. Maybe not the real Junie. You're her brother, but you weren't the one who shared her secrets. I was....To you she was this helpless innocent you had to protect, but in her mind she was conquering the world. Do you really think convention would have held her back....Junie lived her own life, Eddie. It didn't revolve around your expectations of her."

Edward Trotter Wesley Jr., known to many as Eddie, has a lot in common with The X-Files' Fox Mulder. Both hail from families with influence in their respective ethnic circles and beyond. Both search for their missing sisters for decades. Both maintain unorthodox long term partnerships with women who rival them in tenacity, intelligence and independence. Both risk their lives repeatedly as they investigate convoluted conspiracies that could reach into the highest echelons of power. Both won't give up. But these are not interchangeable characters. Each fits into his creator's specially tailored world.

Eddie, the son of a respected black preacher, grew up in a culturally and intellectually thriving upper-class Harlem he later captured, to acclaim but also to skepticism, on the page: When Eddie's fourth novel, Netherwhite, was published, "The white critics praised its sharp satiric eye, not realizing that everything Eddie wrote about Harlem he meant literally. The critics did not believe, even after reading the novel, that a wealthy black society actually existed in the secret uptown shadows of their own. This was the liberal era of our politics, and the Negro was understood by all to be poor, oppressed, and in special need of white solicitude."

Eddie's story begins in 1952 and spans more than twenty years. Eddie, after his youth in Harlem, graduates from Amherst and launches a splashy career as a writer of mostly fiction, about and appealing to the "dark nation," his persistent term for black America. Following the failure to win the hand of Aurelia Treene, "his unattainably highborn girlfriend," he, like yet another fictional character who is famous for comparing life to a box of chocolates, trawls through our recent history. During the fifties, sixties, and seventies he witnesses key events and encounters notables such as Langston Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixon (whom Aurelia knows as "Dick"). Although plot purposes sometimes distort timelines in Palace Council, the civil rights struggle as U.S. segregationist policy shifts from de jure to de facto, the national turmoil of the Vietnam war, and then Watergate serve as backdrops for Eddie's colorful life.*

These upheavals are also the impetus for the formation of domestic urban guerrilla organizations such as the real Weathermen and the Black Panthers. Eddie focuses on a radical group named Jewel Agony. His law-school educated sister, Junie, disappeared without a trace during a car trip with a white girlfriend. After agonizing that she and her friend might have been murdered or abducted, Eddie gradually suspects that the two women engineered their disappearance and joined these militants.

While Eddie, over the years, grasps at any and all clues as to his sister's whereabouts, he is also very busy on other fronts. As author Stephen L. Carter explains in the opening paragraph of Chapter 1, "Had Eddie Wesley been a less reliable man, he would never have stumbled over the body, chased Junie to Tennessee, battled the devils to a draw, and helped topple a President." Basically, Eddie's run-in with a prominent white man's corpse sets him on an erratic and enigmatic hunt to unlock the secrets of an elite cell of powerful men. They shroud themselves in symbolism and are less averse to violence in the name of their shadowy cause than Jewel Agony. Painstakingly, Eddie, in tandem with Aurelia, his one true love, pieces together facts about their long-term plan to somehow reshape American society from the top down. "The plan is named the Empyrean Project, after Milton's Paradise Lost. The founders call themselves the Palace Council, and sometimes, The Twenty. Their leader is The Author, Milton's word for Satan." Who, then, belongs to this council? What is the council's agenda exactly? How will they implement it?

The politically-themed Palace Council is embedded in the same black upper-class milieu as Carter's law-centered The Emperor of Ocean Park and academia-seated New England White. Members of the Garland family appear again, as do some other characters, albeit less prominently. As I have only skimmed the earlier books in preparation for this review, true comparisons must be left to readers who have the first two novels under their belts. I can only respond to Palace Council as a separate unit and say that it did arouse a desire to read its predecessors straight through. Also, it is safe to say that Carter's depiction of '50's Harlem high society probably generates the same kind of disbelief from some whites as Eddie knew his did.

Carter's erudite writing and his ambitious plot at first blush ought to anchor this book among the summer blockbusters. Certainly, Eddie, Aurelia, and a few other characters stimulate interest in their plights. Yet, for all the words sometimes repetitively showered on them, they are not fully-rounded. For instance, Eddie is defined as a "great" writer often and rather pompously, yet his creative process is virtually absent from Palace Council. And Aurelia seems to reveal her self to the reader quite transparently until something she has done blind sides us. Ronald Knox once compiled "ten commandments of detective fiction" and first on the list was the rule that a perpetrator must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. Now, this isn't strictly speaking detective fiction, although it loosely borrows from the genre; and Aurelia, as it happens, is not an antagonist, let alone a vile villain. Still, because we do follow her quite intimately, it feels as if Carter has cheated; we thought we knew her, but we did not. Then there is Junie. She is more a plot device than a person. It is quite a stretch to believe the life story Carter writes for her, in part because in early appearances she does not seem capable of it.

Some early reviews of this work have criticized it as a "first draft" and as a "political thriller" that "doesn't thrill." I would not go so far. It does suffer from various ostentations however. At times it proudly trumpets a piece of the conspiracy puzzle as if it were an incredible discovery when it fact the reader already intuited or deduced it much earlier. Not only that, but sometimes the characters' efforts to uncover something are belabored in the narrative. A good example concerns the analysis of Paradise Lost: Carter seems compelled to take us by the hand and point out how the poem is being cleverly appropriated by the men of the secret council.

Other instances where Carter underestimates his audience occur at the conclusions of a number of chapters or chapter sections. The author apparently wants to end with a big shoe dropping as it were. But again, often the reader will consider it false drama. This is especially true of the chapter that ends, "President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. He was dead." The first sentence tells us where we are in history, so it presents no problem. Sentence number two, however, is totally superfluous. It simply exists as heavy, unwanted punctuation.

Even though a few plot twists may genuinely surprise the reader, as already hinted, at least one of those -- the biggest -- may leave him crying foul. Palace Council is purposely ambiguous about some aspects of the conspiracies it both leaves as bait and then tries to wolf down for us. I wish the swirling conspiracy had been less opaque. I wish the harsh lesson that Eddie had to swallow about his sister's fate and how she answered his faithfulness could havel compensated fully for the shortcomings of this 500-page novel. I wish President Nixon had sounded less like a Tricky Dick caricature, especially since he is portrayed as more civil rights-minded, whether out of opportunism or not, than biographies and histories document. And I wish an editor at Knopf had sat down with Professor Carter and, together, they had tightened and fine-tuned the book's structure.

Nevertheless, Eddie and Aurelia and their story will remain with me for some time to come. They are characters who seek to do right, even when they must sacrifice in that pursuit. Eddie is not Fox Mulder or Forrest Gump. He is unique and inextricably fitted into his own world view and circumstances. He and Aurelia are characters worth getting to know in the pages of Palace Council.

* Not only does this remind me of Forrest Gump, but also Agnes Shanklin, the fictional observer of early twentieth century history in Mary Doria Russell's new novel, Dreamers of the Day. Eddie, however, shapes his times more distinctly than does Agnes.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 37 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Palace Council at The Borzoi Reader



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About the Author:

Stephen L. CarterStephen L. Carter was born in 1954 and was raised in Ithaca, New York. He graduated Ithaca High School in 1972 and his essay "The Best Black" is based on his experiences there. He received an honoray LL.D. from Bates College in 2003. He earned a B.A. from Stanford University in 1976 and a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979.

After graduation, he clerked for US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In 1982, he joined Yale as an assistant professor. Professor Carterís expertise is in constitutional law, contracts, intellectual property law, secrets and lying, and law and religion.

He is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School and lives in Chesire, Connecticut.

 

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