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Word Count: 1,500
The loner in his labyrinth The Emperor of Ocean ParkStephen L Carter 660pp Jonathan Cape To stumble upon one of the great sprawling masterpieces of early 20th-century American naturalist fiction - set against which Stephen L Carters accomplished debut can stand some faint comparison - is to be struck above all by the sense of community The people and their locales may be as removed in space and time as the Irish expats of James T Farrells inter-war Chicago the prosperous bourgeoisie of Dreisers turn-of-the-century upstate New York or the dirt farmers of Steinbecks Depression-era Oklahoma but the effect is the same a set of protocols etiquettes patterns of collective behaviour a free admission ticket to a series of teeming alternative worlds of whose existence the reader had hitherto been simply ignorant No doubt this is a trick that all fiction performs to a greater or lesser degree but the American novel has always seemed to bring it off on the grand scale The crowds are bigger the horizons wider the overall effect that much more deceptive insofar as what exists at the heart of these crowded pulsing landscapes is usually only a terrific loneliness The point about Farrells Studs Lonigan or Steinbecks Tom Joad after all is their aching detachment from the life going on around them Its a mark of The Emperor of Ocean Park s distinction that written more than 70 years since the heyday of Dreiser Farrell and co it should share something of their animating spirit On the one hand and with characteristic matter-of-factness it lifts a curtain on a world that from the vantage point of the average British reader is as alien as Tolstoys Russia the world of upper-bourgeois East Coast black always glossed as the darker nation America On the other the characters who wander through it are by and large watchful solitaries keeping things - information hopes fears - to themselves because there is nowhere else
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