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Book Review: Palace Council

Palace Council
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, 2008

It’s best to first get out of the way the likeliest criticisms of Stephen L. Carter’s brilliant and attention-consuming third novel Palace Council. It’s a political thriller, so there are a few scenes that are more cinematic than literary, and there are a few longshot coincidences contrived to keep the plot motoring in a high gear. It’s not a psychologically searching novel—as extraordinary as it may seem, the main character is a writer who never once suffers from writer’s block.

All this is for the better, of course, because Carter, a Yale law professor and chess aficionado, has a mind perfectly adapted to constructing intricately unfolding scavenger-hunt thrillers. But the singular feat of Palace Council is the way that Carter maintains a high level of guessing-game suspense over 500 pages while revealing a vivid and entirely plausible look at the inner workings of Washington politics in the 1960s and 1970s.

The novel’s winning lead character is Eddie Wesley, whom we meet in 1954 as a young writer aspiringly rubbing shoulders with the businessmen, artists, and debutantes of the affluent Harlem elite. Going home after a wedding at Harlem’s Jumel Mansion, Eddie stumbles over the body of a murdered man who is wearing a strange upside-down cross. Eddie begins to notice others in his circle wearing the cross, which is clearly a badge of membership in some secret organization, and he gradually becomes embroiled in the mystery of the murder. And then, when Eddie’s activist sister suddenly vanishes for obscurely related reasons, Eddie commits himself to learning the truth of the enlarging conspiracy.

But Eddie, who becomes nationally famous as a novelist and James Baldwin-like cultural essayist, is also a high-access parvenu in the wings of the most tumultuous events of the Sixties. Carter’s fascinating (and, in the world of fiction, quite unique) central cast draws from the Brahmin class of black Americans who are now diffused to gated suburbs but were once consolidated in the area of northern Harlem known as Sugar Hill, and who exerted considerable influence in both local and national politics. Due to his friends’ clout and his own talent, Eddie comes into close contact with J. Edgar Hoover, JFK (for whom he is a speechwriter), and Richard Nixon. All of these figures are brought to life with great skill, especially Nixon who, predictably and very believably, plays a sordid part in the conspiracy, but who also comes across as a pathetically real person. Here Eddie and Nixon are having breakfast on the morning that the President made his famous surprise visit with war protestors at the Lincoln Memorial:

“Johnson’s war, not mine. Kennedy started it. Doesn’t matter. If it happens on your watch—and we can’t abandon them. Cut and run. America doesn’t do that.”

“Even when America’s wrong”

“Not a matter of right or wrong. Matter of reputation. They have to believe you’ll do what you—” He scooped his thick head for a bite. The shy smile was almost apologetic. “Can’t do it. Can’t cut and run.”

“It’s like playing poker, Mr. President,” said Eddie, hitting upon an analogy he hoped Nixon would find persuasive. “You know what they say. If you throw good money after bad, you wind up out of the game before you—”

“America doesn’t cut and run.”

The President’s eyes shifted one way, the other way, back again. He seemed restless and uneasy. He was said to be a brooder, a breed Eddie knew at first hand. Eddie looked around the restaurant. Aides stared back, and, beyond them, a few gawking early risers. All these smart people at his beck and call, but Nixon had pulled Eddie out of the crowd to eat breakfast. And then Eddie got it. The President of the United States had no one else to eat with. He wanted company, and, on this particular morning, a left-leaning novelist who hated the war but had written a vaguely complimentary essay about him eight years ago was the best he could do. Nixon wanted to be Eddie’s friend.

These little touches appear everywhere in Palace Council, enriching but never distracting from the exciting plot. This is one of those special books that can be confidently recommended to every kind of reader there is—it’s fast-paced enough to thrill someone who hasn’t ventured much beyond Dan Brown, and it’s relevant and intellectual enough to satiate the more literary sorts who might otherwise be put off by the absence of Proustian atmosphere. Palace Council is a must-read for everybody.

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