Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



New England White by Stephen L. Carter








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In his new novel, New England White, Stephen L. Carter reprises two characters from The Emperor of Ocean Park, as he offers readers almost 600 pages to explore with him why people do what they do. Using the structure of a mystery, Carter explores personal and intimate relationships, racial conflict, family dynamics, parenting, and privilege. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, “The Terriers,” pp. 16-20:

The detectives were sleek and white and very polite, either because that was their nature or out of deference to Lemaster, president of the university, for him just a stepping-stone, as he and his wife dis­cussed but only with each other, and everyone else assumed, to a more impressive sinecure. They arrived at the house on the crest of Hunter’s Meadow Road just before ten on Saturday, escorted by a fidgety offi­cer from the minuscule Tyler’s Landing force, a doughy man named Nilsson, whose doughy son had been in Julia’s basic-science class four years ago—the same year she was fired, or quit, depending on how you looked at it—two eager terriers from the state police, their quiet voices and brush-cut brown hair so well matched that they might have been twins. They reminded her, in their grim and mannerly professionalism, of the Naval officers who came to the house on North Baich Street in Hanover, New Hampshire, in a Reagan-era October to inform her mother and latest temporary stepfather that her twin brother, Jay, a Marine, had died in Grenada. Julia, newly wed as well as newly a mother, had been home by painful coincidence, for Mona Veazie had celebrated her fifty-third birthday the day before, and had spent it dan­dling her grandson, Preston, named for Mona’s father, the architect. So the daughter had the opportunity to sit in the living room and watch her mother die a little, too.

By the time the detectives rang the bell of the house called Hunter’s Heights—up here every dwelling had a name—the unpredicted snow was over, and Mr. Huebner from town had plowed the long, snaking driveway not once but twice. Bright morning sunshine exploded from the shimmering whiteness hard enough to make her eyeballs ache. Or maybe the ache had a more fundamental source: although Julia had fin­ished crying for a while, little Jeannie, sniffling from her cold, had caught Mommy raging at herself in the bathroom mirror, where an ear­lier, happier self smiled sadly back at her. This could not, Julia told her­self~ be happening. But it could. The detectives were a gray-visaged reminder of the hard truth that death stalks every life. So, when Lemas­ter summoned her, she washed her face and fixed her makeup and went down to see what they wanted. Over the handful of hours since the dis­covery of the body, they had done a lot of homework. Just a few details, they said. A couple of questions, folks, sorry to bother you so early, but this is a murder investigation. You understand.

The Carlyles understood.

They all sat in the living room, where Lemaster had stoked a fresh fire in the grate underneath the indifferent watercolor of solemn people on an Atlantic-side beach in Barbados, and, no, thank you, the detec­tives did not care for anything to drink. Julia, craving a glass of wine despite the hour, followed her husband’s sober example and stuck to water. Lemaster’s special assistant, Flew, rallying round the boss in the crisis, had put out a copious platter of everything he could find— crackers, cold cuts, Brie—but no one except Julia partook. She felt a glutton, tortured and exposed by her husband’s abstemiousness. Jean­nie, supposedly resting, was more likely on the upstairs landing listen­ing in. Sleek, competent Flew was probably listening, too, perhaps from the butler’s pantry, unless he was scrubbing the kitchen, for he hated all messes, but those that cluttered his boss’s life particularly: every time Flew walked into the house on Hunter’s Meadow and began to look around, Julia felt hopeless, and judged. Vanessa was in her room, door firmly shut, likely asleep but possibly on the computer, for she had evolved her own methods of burying the pain and confusion of mortal experience. As had stolid Lemaster. The family Bible stood on the mantelpiece, twelve inches high, creamy and intrusive. The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 version, stood next to it, for Lemaster Carlyle ran a traditional Anglican home and took a perverse pride in not caring who knew it.

The twin terriers said they knew how hard this must be, but their matched eyes said they didn’t. They sat side by side on the brushed leather sofa, imported from Italy, that Lemaster hated for its ostenta­tion, for he possessed the immigrant’s thrift. Doughy Nilsson perched alone on a wooden ladderback armchair of intricate design, one of the few pieces Julia had retained from Mona’s house in New Hampshire. Like the Louis XV writing desk in the front hall, the aging chair had as its original provenance her grandmother’s famous townhouse in Harlem. There had been a day, as Mona put it, when everyone who was anyone in the darker nation passed through Arnaretta Veazie’s salon: by which she meant, anyone who aspired to position in what they called the Clan, the heavily fortified borders of which, once upon a time, Granny Vee and her buddies diligently patrolled, lest the wrong sort of Negroes force their way in.

When she tried to explain the Clan to her white friends, they never quite got it. But Julia was not surprised: whenever she mentioned that her family had been architects for seven generatiofl5~ even most black people looked at her pityingly, as if she had exaggerated a tale of her forebears building their own shanties. Whereas in actuality Veazie & Elden had been, back in the nineteenth century, one of the five largest architectural firms in Manhattan.

The terriers did not seem the sort to take an interest in the social history of the community. Their elaborate questions came with a slow­ness that was fresh torture. They spent a lot of time flipping through their notebooks. Julia wanted to strangle them, and even placid Lemas­ter seemed edgy beneath his politesse, but an almost palpable air of impending tragedy hangs over encounters between black Americans and white police, and the best intentions of all sides have nothing to do with it. Nor was Julia certain that their intentions were the best, but her mind just now was in two hundred different places. They pressed on. They kept asking why the Carlyles had chosen that route home, seem­ing to doubt the whole daughter-at-the-movies story. Vanessa, the skin­nier of the terriers pointed out, had driven back to the house with her boyfriend. Julia explained that the teen’s decision had defied her father’s edict. Lemaster had forgiven the breach because he understood Vanessa’s worry at her parents’ tardiness. The story felt laborious even to Julia, and the detectives must have agreed, for they interrupted to point out that Four Mile was an old logging road, running over water company property, and posted against trespassing.

“Everybody takes Four Mile,” said Julia uncertainly, before Lemas­ter could stop her.

“Not everybody found the body,” said the skinnier.

No. but somebody had to, she almost spouted, feeling like the divinity student she had once been, arguing over the fallacy of syn­chronicity.

“And that’s why we’re all here,” said Lemaster, with brio. A break while little Flew stepped in, towheaded and freckly, offering round cups of hot chocolate on a tray. Julia took one to be polite, but the detectives didn’t. Their eyes followed him out of the room.

They asked about cars that preceded them and cars that followed them, they asked about whether cell phones ever worked out there, they asked about footprints and tire marks, they asked if the Carlyles had seen anyone else, they asked why Lemaster had taken his eyes off the road, they asked why he had touched the body: as a former prosecu­tor, surely he knew— Lemaster delivered a quiet, confident answer to every question. Sitting in the overdecorated room, surrounded by the sort of osten­tation for which the Clan had once been famous, memory tumbling harshly through her head, Julia found herself more than willing to let her husband take the lead. Her thoughts were none too reliable at the moment. She was missing snatches of conversation. Although sitting down, she felt like she was wobbling on her feet. She had barely slept. She had phoned both the boys—Aaron at Phillips Exeter, Preston at M.I.T.—and had fielded easily two dozen calls so far this morning. Reporters she turned over to Flew, who had arrived at the crack of dawn and was expert at delivering a piece of his mind. Most of the rest were members of her club, Ladybugs, who in their fluttery way were drawn to disaster, each Sister Lady, as if reading from a script, announc­ing that she was “sorry to wake you” but had “heard the news” and “wanted to see how you’re holding up”—but, really, to probe for inside information to match against whatever rumors were circulating already through the county’s thin community of middling and higher-class African America. That was what the members called themselves, Sister Ladies, emphasizing both their intimacy and their distinctiveness. You had to be somebody to get in, the older members liked to say, mainly in reminiscence, because nowadays a black woman could become some­body in a single generation: not exactly the way things had worked back in the day.

Much later, when the winter turned bleak and scary, it was this moment that Julia would remember: sitting in the living room looking out on the early snow, the detectives plodding through their questions, while stray thoughts teased her mind—thoughts of Ladybugs, thoughts of Granny Vee, the thoughts of stories she had heard all her life about the old Harlem days when the Clan still mattered, even to black people not a part of it. It was almost as though, even on the terrible morning after she discovered the body of Kellen Zant, Julia Carlyle knew that the answer to the mystery that would soon coil around her wounded family lay in the darker nation’s shadowed past.


Carter’s writing along with his philosophical wonder attracts intelligent and thoughtful readers. New England White will not disappoint.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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