A brilliant black writer’s harsh education in reality, a search for a lost sibling and the history of “a radical organization [created] to scare white America” are the primary ingredients of the third bulky thriller from Carter (Law/Yale; New England White, 2007, etc.).
The serpentine plot spans two decades of the previous century’s history, beginning in 1954 when recent Amherst graduate and semi-willing tool of Harlem crime bosses Eddie Wesley stumbles onto the body of a murdered black attorney, and into a whirlwind of intrigue that’s gradually linked to the title organization, a shadowy cabal that exploits and endangers even its most hopeful and idealistic members. Eddie seeks answers from the woman he loved and lost to another man, a parade of mentors and exemplars (including prominent authors Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison), even the Javert-like FBI agent who keeps him under constant surveillance. Another major plot strand commits Eddie to seek his disappeared younger sister Junie, rumored to have become a kingpin (queenpin?) in the violent leftist organization Jewel Agony. All this and much more (including a pattern of ominously meaningful Milton quotations) occurs as Eddie himself, established as a successful and respected novelist, shifts his focus to politics and becomes an insider in the Kennedy administration, then “a journalist for a radical monthly” and a seasoned observer of events that lead inexorably to the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the looming resignation of (a surprisingly sympathetically portrayed) President Richard Nixon. The latter is only one of several luminaries and villains who make memorable appearances, among them JFK, J. Edgar Hoover and Barbra Streisand. There are arguably too many barely distinguishable scenes in which Eddie is abducted, interrogated, threatened or tortured. But Carter keeps the pot boiling energetically, and surprises leap out until this very long (but never dull) novel’s penultimate page.
The so-called masters of the genre could learn something from Carter’s intoxicating blend of political street smarts and literary skill. This is Grade-A entertainment.