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Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

The Way It Was Before

Stephen Carter's first novel offers a compelling mystery

Stephen Carter appends to the end of The Emperor of Ocean Park a lengthier and more than customarily detailed version of the pro forma disclaimer: "any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." Carter may have special reasons for the lengthy precision of who and what his first novel is not about, since its superficial resemblances to what is generally known of his own life and career are nothing short of striking. To lay such suspicions to rest, he carefully details all the ways in which his first-person novel about a law professor of roughly his age, who teaches at a law school (which is not Yale, where he has happily taught for some 20 years), in Elm Harbor (which is not New Haven, a few shared ghosts notwithstanding), should not be read as a "roman à clef" about people, confirmations for judgeships, or any of the many other compelling features of our times—and his own life and writings—that enliven its pages. He is writing fiction, not autobiography. And, notwithstanding similarities that seem to defy credulity, the disclaimer ultimately rings true, largely because Carter has the wit to craft The Emperor of Ocean Park as a complex mystery, thereby avoiding the autobiographical temptation of many first novels.

Carter's novel builds on the experience of more than a decade of successful publication of a series of thoughtful books upon timely topics. Beginning with Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991), which does have autobiographical elements, Carter has published a succession of reflections upon the (less than heartening) state of our politics and culture and, especially, upon the appropriate role of religion in them: The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1993), The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process (1994), Integrity (1996), Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (1998), and God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics ...

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