It's no surprise that in "Palace Council," the third of Stephen L. Carter's fables about black America's upper crust, success depends not on what you know but whom. With the right connections—along with the right bloodlines and education—a young man has a good chance of going places.
The ambitious fellow at the center of this sprawling and occasionally confusing novel has a comparatively modest family background but education and moxie to spare. Edward Wesley Jr., late of Amherst College and Brown University, "could quote Shakespeare and Dante by the yard, but also Douglass and Du Bois. He could tease. He could charm. He could flatter."
So it's almost to be expected when he progresses from a "man on the rise" to an acclaimed novelist and journalist who wins two National Book Awards before turning 40. Eddie means to share his laurels with his one true love, Aurelia Treene, or with no one at all. Aurie, who made a memorable appearance as a perceptive septuagenarian in Carter's last novel, "New England White," is first seen here as a lovely twentysomething recently arrived in Harlem. A talented writer who eventually earns a doctoral degree, she is more concerned with landing a rich man, a prerequisite for the high society to which she aspires. She spurns Eddie while he is still poor and obscure, instead marrying Kevin Garland, son of a Wall Street player who is "possibly the wealthiest Negro in the United States."
The only other woman with a claim to Eddie's affections is his younger sister, Junie. Shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School, she disappears while traveling cross-country with a friend. Carter hangs his plot on Eddie's obsessive search for his beloved sister, a quest that will span two decades and wind through various danger zones and spy dens, including the White House.
Meanwhile, Aurie's brooding, mysterious husband leaves home for weeks at a time, returning periodically to mutter cryptically about a "mess" that Phil Castle, a dead associate, has left behind. I should mention that Castle's corpse, sprawled in a Harlem gutter, had been found by none other than Eddie Wesley.
The story unfolds from 1952 to 1975, and the twists, turns and double-crosses take place in a number of settings, including Harlem, Washington, D.C., and parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. All the globe-trotting and time-passing enable Eddie and Aurie, who eventually patch up their differences and form a team, to function as improbable eyewitnesses to history.
Eddie, for example, has private audiences with Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, trades favors with Joseph P. Kennedy, pals around with Langston Hughes and battles wits with J. Edgar Hoover. Aurie parties with everyone from Harry Belafonte to Lena Horne and Sugar Ray Robinson.
But Carter seems to fear readers won't be able to keep up with the many events and personalities crammed into his pages, hence his occasionally pointing out clues and facts of history best left to the reader's discernment. These intrusions slow the narrative, and Eddie's knack for turning up at revelatory intervals challenges our willingness to believe.
Eddie's presence at Camp David, alone with Nixon as he ponders leaving office in the wake of Watergate, is one such challenging moment, albeit one that allows Carter to connect his plot to a strand introduced in his first novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park."In that mystery, Oliver Garland, an appeals court judge, blames Nixon's resignation on "a cabal of vengeful liberals" and "the ruthless forces of the left." It turns out the judge's conspiracy theory was not far off the mark. In "Palace Council," the left is not so much merciless as self-indulgent and disorganized. But in Carter's telling, Nixon's hand was indeed forced by a cabal, a group that will be familiar to readers of "New England White."
The conspirators in that book belonged to the Empyreals, a Harlem club composed of "400 colored gentlemen of quality." Some Empyreals are involved in the maneuverings Eddie uncovers, but this time the schemes involve a far more exclusive group. Eight Empyreals have joined with 12 white men to form the Palace Council. Having "no patience with democracy," the council has launched a covert campaign to build a better America by taking it over, even if it requires generations to implement.
Council members launch viral social networks long before the World Wide Web. The host of the first gathering, convened in 1952, "knew people, and the kind of people he knew, knew other people." Guilt by association occurs throughout the novel. The FBI's Hoover tells Eddie he had "a call from somebody who had a call from somebody who had a call from somebody."
Members of the Veazies, Garlands, Bings and other clans of what Carter terms "the darker nation" populate each of his novels as he creates a universe in which a notion or person introduced early on just may pop up again in a subsequent book. Carter's universe is most compelling when he aims at the targets with which he apparently is most comfortable, black high society and academia—and where his slings and arrows travel with admirable sureness. That this latest fails to satisfy as much as his previous offerings is no reason for readers to abandon his ambitious project. "Palace Council" contains tantalizing hints of conspiracies to come, and it's plenty entertaining to wonder who might emerge from this novel to figure prominently in his next.
Palace CouncilBy Stephen L. CarterKnopf, 514 pages, $26.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun