Friday, August 7, 2009

Stephen L. Carter's novel Jericho's Fall

Stephen L. Carter, Jericho’s Fall
Knopf, 2009

I liked Stephen Carter’s first three fiction novels, The Emperor of Ocean Park, New England White, and Palace Council, novels that could be considered a trilogy, as they shared some of the same characters, focusing on a segment of educated and wealthy African-Americans we do not see much of in literature. His books are intelligent entertainments and yet what is surprising, thrilling, and troubling is the degree to which conspiracies and conspiracy theories are at the core of these books. That corresponds to the paranoia of a victimized minority as well as the political analysis of certain radicals. Carter’s novel Jericho’s Fall is about an aging, seemingly ill government man, now retired, who threatens to reveal state secrets and financial secrets. His former lover, a young woman, returns to attend his death bed. His daughters are there, one of them very hostile. They are all under surveillance, and in danger. Where is the evidence the great man has and what will he do with it?

The novel moves fast through conversations and acts, featuring intriguing characters, and often there is believable emotional weight as well as interesting political speculations. Carter’s use of language (in narrative and dialogue) is at a high-level with only of few points of stiffness. However, near the story’s end, I found the leading character’s response to a fatal event too lacking in affect—his coolness then is unlikely, not quite human, even for someone whose work has required monstrous calculations. Yet Stephen Carter’s work is engaging for his ability to suggest the kind of characters who can create or earn and hold and handle great wealth and power. The reader does not feel the cheapness or emptiness that can accompany reading such depictions, the exploitative flavor. Carter has a genuine and admirable talent. In the novel, as the great man’s enemies circle, approach, and attempt to do their worst, we read something that allows us to imagine the consequences of certain amoral ways of being in the world.