'Palace Council' by Stephen L. Carter

His 'black elite' chronicle bogs down in details

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What is the Palace Council? That is the question that hangs over the 510 pages of this convoluted novel. The answer is not nearly as interesting as author Stephen L. Carter intends, but the two decades of American racial history that his novel covers is.

The story begins with the murder of Philmont Castle, a prominent white Wall Street lawyer, on the grounds of the Jumel Mansion in Harlem in the 1950s.

   
"PALACE COUNCIL"

By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf ($26.95)

   

When Edward Wesley, an inspiring black writer, comes across that first corpse (there will be many more, including the "suicide" and "accidental death" of a black scientist and a white college professor), he is drawn into a 20-year search to find out not only whodunit, but why.

Wesley was at the mansion that night to celebrate the engagement of his former girlfriend, Aurelia Treene, to one of Harlem's most eligible bachelors, a member of the prominent Garland family (a family that first appeared in Carter's debut novel).

Wesley's refusal to renounce his passion for Aurelia despite her love of another man (or does she crave his wealth and position?) and his dogged persistence in finding his rebellious sister June who disappears (or has she been kidnapped?) are the comforting constants in a dizzying plotline that zigzags from Harlem to Hong Kong, from Oak Bluff on Martha's Vineyard to Vietnam.

Like Wesley, we are kept constantly in the dark as intriguing clues (or are they red herrings?) crop up, embedded in such unlikely places as Dante's "Paradise Lost" and D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover."

Is nothing as it seems? Or everything? Carter maddeningly keeps us guessing.

In an author's note, he says his novel is "about the sixties," a time, despite the name, that he defines as spanning two decades, beginning in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education and concluding in 1974 with President Richard Nixon's fall from power.

The author admits at times he has chosen to "fuss around" with that history to fit the needs of his narrative.

He changes the dates of several events, places future CIA Director William Colby in Vietnam earlier so he can meet his protagonist and anachronistically has a character smoking Virginia Slims before they were introduced in 1968.

But don't think Carter's willingness to bend history to fit his plot means that history is only background noise in this political thriller. At times his plot of incredible conspiracies and intrigues, in fact, seems like a giant red herring itself -- merely an excuse to recapture the tenor of a bygone era.

The novel moves from the 1950s when "the darker nation," the term Wesley has coined for his people, had to sit in the back of buses and plan cross-country trips carefully in order to find lodging and restaurants that would accommodate Negroes.

It continues through the years of the black power movement and into the more integrated '70s. Wesley works in the White House during the Kennedy administration.

When Nixon loses the governor's race in California in 1962, Wesley writes a piece that tries to capture the pathos of the former vice president's situation and gets labeled as a conservative.

By novel's end, Wesley is walking the grounds of Camp David with the soon-to-be ex-President Nixon.

As the plot turns and twists, Carter provides a running social commentary, via various characters, which often sheds light on today's racial politics. As in Carter's previous novels ("The Emperor of Ocean Park" and "New England White"), Carter's focuses on the world of the black elite, this time the "strange and wonderful and terrifying social world" of wealthy blacks living on Harlem's Sugar Hill, ruled by snobby "Czarinas."

However, his portrait here isn't historically accurate; again, he's fussed with history. The Harlem scene he evokes really existed in the 1930s and '40s, not in the 1950s and '60s of his novel, he admits in his afterword.

As the country integrated, Harlem's elite moved to midtown Manhattan and into the suburbs. By the '60s, the power of the "Czarinas" had been broken and the black community was far more fractured.

Too bad he couldn't have found a way to be true to both historical facts and his characters' timeline. In a novel where the history is more inspiring than the plot, it would have been wise to get it right.


Margo Hammond, former book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, is co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures," to be published in November.


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