Joyce Carol Oates: Black Water
Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors who seem to have a book out every year and, with forty years’ worth of output spanning novels, short stories, plays, essays, poetry, and more, it feels strange never to have read anything by her. And then there’s the writing under pseudonyms, too – she’s practically monopolising literature; and she’s picked up a number of awards along the way.
So why haven’t I read her? Well, it may be something to do with the titles of those novels: Man Crazy, Middle Age: A Romance, and Missing Mom, for example. But it turns out, as her Bram Stoker award suggests, that Oates is perhaps more protean than I first thought.
So, then, to Black Water (1992), which is out of print in the UK, but still cheaply available, although I picked it up from my local library. The poor thing hadn’t been checked out for quite some time. Was it that bad? Actually, no, as it happens.
Kelly Kelleher, a twenty-six year old woman, is out for a drive with a tipsy political figure referred to only as the Senator. They’ve just left a Fourth of July party and are headed somewhere a little more secluded. But, as fate has it, they speed off down a closed road and, before the Senator can react, they have skidded off the road and find themselves in black rushing water, the car listing on the passenger side. It’s okay for the Senator – he escapes. But for poor Kelly, it’s time for her young life to flash before her eyes. And so it does, the narrative flowing between a series of flashbacks and those final panicked moments of knowing you are about to die:
She was drowning, but she was not going to drown. She was strong, she meant to put up a damned good fight.
If the premise sounds familiar, then it’s because Oates has lifted it almost wholly from the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, where Ted Kennedy escaped his car when he drove off a bridge, leaving twenty-eight year old, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown. Personally, I was unaware of the incident until doing a bit of extracurricular research on Black Water, and being ignorant of the historical basis, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t an issue. For one, Oates has changed the name, so it’s a story. Right? Secondly, it’s setting is after the Gulf War. And finally, what matter are facts when what’s on offer here is Oates’ imagination, as she invents her own version and supposes what it must be like to be that young woman in the final moments of her life as:
…the water splashed and churned about her mouth, foul-tasting water not water, like no water she knew.
Black Water‘s style varies throughout, the flashbacks being detailed assessments of the burgeoning relationship between Kelly and the Senator; the manic passages in the sinking car, for want of a better phrase, being prose poetry, producing a sense of the ramblings, assurances, and fears within Kelly’s mind.
Since the drowing can only occupy so many pages, the rest are taken up by Kelly’s life. We learn about her parents, her schooling, her job – all this in order to give us someone to care about. Not so that we care about her, but so that we have a figure to jeer in the Senator. The sheer arrogance of the man as he abuses Kelly’s confidence in him (her thesis was on him; he’s single, she’s obviously interested in him, so why not?), and, in the aftermath of the incident, is concerned only with this career highlights the arrogance of power and the versions of truth that we are fed:
…so there was an instant’s shocked silence and then Ray said, “Dead–!” more an inhalation of breath than an expletive and then he said, quickly, “Don’t tell me over the phone! Just tell me where you are and I’ll come get you,” and the Senator was sobbing now, furious and incredulous and aggrieved, “The girl was drunk, and she got emotional, she grabbed at the wheel and the car swerved off the road…”
Black Water, as a novella, is certainly an interesting piece although I don’t think I overly enjoyed it. Sure, its prose was frenzied and fun – even if I was reading about a woman drowning – and its repetitive nature understandable, give that it reflected the wandering thoughts of Kelly as it came to new subjects, washed off, returned. But there was just something that didn’t catch my interest, probably the American politics aspect. It was worth going off-road for, but didn’t make the splash I wanted.
November 8, 2007