By Christopher Benfey
Herman Melville praised Hawthorne's gothic New England tales, with their gloomy ministers and doom-ridden families, for what he called their "power of blackness," but in "Moby-Dick" he showed that whiteness could be just as terrifying. In the great 42nd chapter, Melville enumerates all the reasons why whiteness--in whales or ghosts or snow-covered landscapes ("a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink")--reveals a bitter existential truth: "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."
The whiteness that appalls in Stephen L. Carter's stylishly written new novel, New England White, is only partly the snow, which sifts through the "Gothic sprawl" of the university campus in "grimy, dilapidated" Elm Harbor in the late fall of 2003. In a coy author's note we are assured that Elm Harbor is "not a thinly disguised New Haven," so the unnamed university is presumably not a thinly disguised Yale, where Carter--author of a previous best-selling thriller, The Emperor of Ocean Park, as well as highly regarded books on the pitfalls of affirmative action and the proper place of religion in public life--has taught in the law school since 1982.
For Lemaster Carlyle, president of the university, the "heart of whiteness" is the creepy bedroom community of Tyler's Landing, population 3,000, of whom five families, including the Carlyles, happen to be black. In the Landing, as it is called, Lemaster and his wife, Julia, a deputy dean of the divinity school, live in an ostentatious house with their two daughters, Vanessa ("16 going on 50") and Jeannie, and "a smelly feline mutt" named Rainbow Coalition. Lemaster's college roommate, now president of the United States ("the big president") and up for re-election, sometimes calls to chat. To their envious neighbors on Hunter's Meadow Road, "where the houses stood continents apart," the Carlyles seem to have it all. But those "invisible spheres" Melville mentioned are about to crack the veneer of their seemingly perfect lives.
Despite its up-to-date Architectural Digest charms, the Carlyles' mansion, Hunter's Heights, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wuthering Heights. For one thing, there's a Heathcliff lurking in Julia's life. Her "sinfully attractive" ex-lover, Kellen Zant, co-inventor of an important economic theory and much in demand in the private sector, is a professor at Elm Harbor. While the West Indian immigrant Lemaster Carlyle is all duty and tradition, an Anglican with close ties to the conservative Oval Office, Kellen Zant, fatherless son of a Southern drug addict, is an "indulgent, amoral" professor of desire. (President Carlyle tries to bring his rival down a notch by suggesting, as another college president allegedly advised Cornel West, that he "should spend less of his energy on his private clients and more on scholarship.")
When Zant's corpse turns up on a back road, half-buried in the snow with two bullets in its head, at precisely the place where Carlyle, driving Julia home from an alumni fund-raising party, happens to lose control of his black Cadillac Escalade, the Carlyles have a problem. "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." The investigation of what exactly happened to Zant, carried out formally by Bruce Vallely, the black "director of campus safety" and a former Special Forces op, and informally by Julia, turns out to be linked to what happened, years earlier, to a local white girl with a passion for Emily Dickinson. Julia's daughter Vanessa is obsessed with Gina Joule's fate, and not just because "Gina was 17, like Vanessa, a resident of the Landing, also like Vanessa--and her father, like Vanessa's, taught at the university."
Thirty years earlier, Gina's drowned body, with evidence of foul play, was discovered at the town beach. A young black man in a stolen car, blamed for the crime, was conveniently shot by the police before he could defend himself. Before his own murder, Zant seems to have come across evidence that some college roommates from 1973, now occupying very high places, just might know what really happened to Gina, and might pay a good deal of money to keep those details secret.
That's the plot in a nutshell, and Carter keeps us guessing about its progress right up to the intricately deployed end. But in the 500-plus pages of New England White, he's up to more than suspense and the gothic apparatus--including coded anagrams and cracked mirrors--he wields with considerable aplomb. For one thing, he has spiked his thriller with wryly affectionate campus satire, somewhat in the vein of Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution. President Carlyle is threatened with a no-confidence vote for seeking to merge the gender studies and women's studies programs. And Carter has fun with the ambiguous function of "a divinity school that only half believed in God."
The plot of New England White is also sufficiently expansive to allow room for some serious thinking about the progress of "the darker nation" at a time when neither political party has much time for the intractable challenges of race and poverty, and when "as far as white America knew, nobody black ever had money or education before, say, affirmative action." Carter's affection for traditional African-American social and religious institutions is evident at every turn. He invents an elite and shadowy secret fraternity named the Empyreals (a black Skull and Bones), which preserves a tough and powerful identity against the exclusive white clubs President Carlyle calls the "Caucasian Squawk Circle."
Apart from its more earthshaking revelations, New England White ends with a deft local touch: Julia Carlyle writes to her mother about her own upbringing amid the white snow and white people of New Hampshire. "To be a great people is also to be an old people," she has come to realize, and an old people has to know how to keep secrets. "I think you moved us to Hanover for the winters," Julia concludes. "Time covers truth like snow."
In New England White, Stephen Carter casts a cold eye on some of the secrets--big historical ones and others more intimate--that have contributed to the greatness of the "darker nation." As another master of New England gothic, Robert Frost, wrote in his own little fantasy of insidious whiteness: "What but design of darkness to appall? -- / If design govern in a thing so small."
Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke and writes about art for Slate.