Saturday, July 7, 2007

Two reviews of Stephen Carter, New England White

The hot new book reviewed this weekend is not a history book, but New England White, a new novel by Stephen L. Carter, Yale Law School. Christopher Bentley in the New York Times calls the book "stylishly written" and finds the plot "sufficiently expansive to allow room for some serious thinking about the progress of 'the darker nation' at a time when neither political party has much time for the intractable challenges of race and poverty, and when 'as far as white America knew, nobody black ever had money or education before, say, affirmative action.'" But the review not to miss is by the Washington Post's thoughtful deputy Book World editor Jabari Asim. Asim writes:

No matter how our ancestors got here -- in the holds of slave ships, through the gates of Ellis Island, via a long trek across the Bering Straits or thanks to a nifty gift of land from the British crown -- on these shores we can all become, for better or worse, something else entirely, at least for a while. In this sense, the United States is the ultimate land of make-believe, and the proud black strivers who populate Stephen L. Carter's new novel are among its most fervent pretenders. As members of the elite vanguard whom W.E.B. DuBois famously called the Talented Tenth, they convince themselves from time to time that our nation's once rock-solid color lines are now paper-thin abstractions that anyone can surmount. Well, anyone with good breeding, a capacious intellect and a briefcase brimming with postgraduate degrees.

And yet Carter's ambitious black achievers are constantly running up against the limits their skin imposes. In the lily-white 'burbs where his characters scheme and toil, African American homeowners are denied access to residents-only beaches, stranded motorists are refused assistance from their suspicious white neighbors, and even law professors harbor "the secret fear of false arrest that every black male in America nurtures somewhere deep within." Little embers of injustice and dissatisfaction are ever present, occasionally erupting into flames. What are we to make of Carter's parade of bonfires and vanities?...

[Asim includes a basic plot summary, but notes that] the author is only partly concerned with whodunit; he'd rather ponder why any of us does the things we do -- especially the bad things....Human weakness is troubling, fascinating stuff, and Carter has spent much of his career plumbing its depths....It's perversely pleasurable, then, to find that his fictional creations are reliably rude, dishonest and deliciously sinful....

Like a modern-day version of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Carter casts a critical light on the lifestyles of the black and privileged. In his novels, as in real life, they must demonstrate a voluminous knowledge of mainstream culture -- its history, politics, neuroses, etc. -- while serving tirelessly as spokespersons for and guardians of their own embattled slice of marginalia. Little wonder, then, as Carter dryly notes, "black Americans at the top of their professions seemed to feel the need from time to time to slough off the personas that brought success in the wider, white world -- and to escape the small whispers and slights whose existence they secretly feared -- and hang out instead with the successful of their own nation."...

But dismissing these hardworking professionals as pampered sell-outs would be far too simple, so Carter wisely endows them with an extra layer of complexity. He reveals that they haven't really turned their backs on pursuing justice; they've simply brought it over to the "dark" side.
To continue reading, click here.

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