Black Water – Andy dives into the mire of Chappaquiddick, and emerges a better (or at least a better read) person

October 9, 2010

At some point in 1969 JFK’s randy youngest brother drunkenly drove himself and a Democratic party activist he was planning to root (if he hadn’t already) into a marsh and left her to drown while he fucked off into the night. In doing so he destroyed any chance he had of becoming the second Kennedy president, and generated the sort of myth that only America can produce. And he gave Joyce Carol Oates the inspiration for one of the most amazing pieces of writing I’ve read in a while.

My grasp of the facts is not encyclopedic. Netty will no doubt fill in some of the gaps. She said she would, anyway.

Black Water is packaged to look like a novel.  It clocks in at 154 pages. But it’s 154 pages of big print, wide margins, vast empty white spaces. Count them words and it can’t actually be described as anything other than a novella. And that’s not a bad thing. I’m currently reading Franzen’s Freedom, just over halfway through it. And an awesome book it is (thus far). It’s tempting to wonder what a writer of his type – a unabashed fan and creator of “big, important” novels – would do with the Chappaquiddick story. Something rather different, I suspect, to Oates – herself the author of a number of “big, important” novels. I’m not necessarily having a crack at Franzen here, he’s a seriously impressive writer, but I have to wonder whether he has the ability to – is compress the right word? – to distill everything down to its essence, to drain anything and everything that even looks vaguely immaterial even punctuation for godsake and then to be left with a slim, stunning slice of rage and understatement (and yes, it really is both of those things at the same time) – could Franzen do that? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe not.

The Boston Globe’s review, on the first page of my edition, lists the words “HAUNTING, ARRESTING, UNFLINCHING”. Yes, in caps. Haunting? Absolutely. I suspect “arresting” may be a snide reference to Ted Kennedy. But I’m not sure about unflinching. I’d suggest, in the last chapter, that Oates does flinch – and thank Christ she does. Netty and I have discussed the almost unbearable depiction of young Kelly drowning in a pond of diluted waste. On her story’s first page Oates has The Senator’s car going into the water, and Kelly’s slow and horrible death is revisited many, many times. I got to the last chapter and took a deep breath because I assumed its 12 (large-print, wide-margined) pages would be a hideously detailed account of a young woman’s drowning death in a pool of shit. Thankfully Oates steps back from that, although only just, and interestingly two chapters earlier she discusses, using material from official legal documents, the various and utterly despicable ways in which it is legally acceptable under American law to subject another human being to “capital punishment”. At first I rather foolishly and uncharitably wondered if these were the many deaths Oates had imagined should be visited upon Ted Kennedy and his many imitators (and predecessors), but in hindsight it clearly relates to the death that has been visited upon Kelly, a death that was easily avoidable had The Senator perhaps not been a drunk, or a letch, or prepared to follow road signs, or driven carefully, or had the decency to at least attempt to rescue a young woman he’d just tipped into a swamp.

The last chapter is less distressing than I feared but the novella as a whole fucks with the reader’s head a bit. A lot, depending on your sensitivity. Many of the scenes from Kelly’s perspective involve The Senator coming back to try and rescue her, running around the edge of the swamp calling her name, diving into the water, banging against the windscreen; her parents are there, she’s being taken to hospital, the shit is being pumped from her lungs and her stomach, everything’s going to be OK… Except of course it’s not. As she imagines these things she’s minutes if not seconds from death. Her fantasies are even more heartrending because they feed back into her ideas about where her life might lead, how she thought of her future as a child, how she thinks her encounter with The Senator might affect her life. And there’s one particularly horrible passage, in which she realises she’s vomited on herself, and can’t remember it happening, and she’s struggling to breathe from a bubble of moonlit air and the moon is the proof she needs that she’s still alive and she’s struggling to push herself towards that tiny bubble – Amazing writing, but devastating to read.

Much has been made of this book’s attitude towards male political power and its exploitation of young females and that’s obviously the major motivating factor of the storyline itself, but Oates transcends that. It’s not just about Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. It’s about the death of youthful political idealism (with the foot of the man who inspired that idealism  firmly planted in your temple while you drown), it’s about politics in the ’90s and the ’60s (Chappaquiddick was the ’60s, Black Water is sometime in the early ’90s) and the suggestion that from some perspectives not a lot has changed in 30 years. It’s possibly even a prescient vision of Bill Clinton. But Kelly’s death, while it obviously mirrors a real and truly horrible and tragic death in 1969, might also be the death of parliamentary liberalism. Is it possible to be a decent human being and a participant in western two-party democracy these days? Doubt it. Exhibit A: Julia Gillard. We’re all drowning in shit, and that dude with his foot on your head? Surprise. He’s not going to save you.

If you’re worried I’ve spoiled this book for you by telling you how it ends: Don’t be daft. Only the most ignorant of readers could come to Black Water not knowing what its conclusion has to be, and ignorant readers buy Bryce Courtney, not Joyce Carol Oates. The reader’s knowledge of how this story must end makes the experience all the more powerful – and disturbing.


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