The Arrangements of Race

In his debut novel, Stephen Carter takes pains to explain that although he and his protagonist, Talcott Garland (who goes by “Misha”), share superficial aspects of their identities, they should not be confused as twins. Carter and Misha may both be middle-aged professors at prestigious East Coast universities who grew up as members of the African-American elite that summered on Martha’s Vineyard as segregation was officially ending; and they may both be passionate about chess. Beyond that, however, they are dissimilar. Carter drives no faster than the speed limit and otherwise leads a life that appears to be boring beyond reproach according to glossy magazine profiles. At the same time, his non-alter-ego fantasizes guiltily about an affair with a mysterious woman even as he entertains paranoid visions of his wife cheating on him with her boss. Carter continues on a career of academic reflections as the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, with a special interest in expressions of religious faith in public life. Misha ultimately faces a showdown with an unexpected figure that resolves the political scandal that ended his late father’s political career, albeit leaving him with unanswered questions. Indeed, Carter has been mocked with good humor for his extensive author’s note, which concludes the book and was intended to preempt casual conjectures about the relationship of life to art, the extraordinary detail of which ironically only prompts such guesswork. Carter notes, for example, that he has placed a Brooks Brothers store in its old location rather than at its new corner to facilitate Misha’s escape in one of several chase scenes (p. 656).