Saturday, June 14, 2008

Palace Council

Palace Council: A Novel
By Stephen L. Carter
2008 Alfred A. Knopf, Publishers, and imprint of Random House
Hardcover only, 9780307266583, $26.95

Stephen Carter is a literary daredevil.

Palace Council is a sprawling epic of America during its most tumultuous period, and Carter conveys the idealism, the ruthless ambition, and the paranoia of America over two decades, from the Cold War of 1954 to the end of an era, 1974 and the crumbling of the Nixon White House.

Carter is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of two previous novels, The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White. I think it’s fair to say that his unique talent is an ability to capture, as reviewer David Keymer put it, “the nuances of human behavior on both sides of the color line.”

It’s 1954. Eddie Wesley is a middle-class black man determined to succeed. He gravitates to New York, specifically Harlem, and renews his acquaintance with the people at the highest echelon of black society. Over the course of the novel we’ll observe as that society unravels, but at the start, Harlem society is wielding enormous influence in the culture and in politics.

Put in his place at a party, Eddie stomps off into the night, only to stumble over the body of prominent white Wall Street lawyer Philmont Castle. That begins a twenty-year search for the clues to Castle’s death and the conspiracy that spawned it.

Junie, Eddie’s sister, disappears, then later becomes a notorious fugitive from justice as the most famous member of “Jewel Agony,” precursor to the Weather Underground. Finding her becomes the key to unraveling the conspiracy.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover makes recurring cameo appearances, as do Joseph P.Kennedy early, and Jack Kennedy later when Eddie joins the White House speechwriting staff. Richard Nixon, who may be a conspirator or who may be a victim of the conspiracy, summons Eddie several times, seeing him as someone he can confide in.

Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison show up, too.

It’s a love story, a thriller, and a mystery, and the payoff will surprise you. What makes this a great summer read is that you won’t want to put it down until you solve the mystery yourself.

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