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Why Netty is wary of black water, but not of Black Water …

October 10, 2010

In 1969 the world lay at the feet of Democrat Senator Edward Moore “Teddy” Kennedy, scion of one of America’s best-known and wealthiest political families. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, gunned down in Dallas, Texas, in the third year of his presidency in 1963, and Robert F. Kennedy, shot during his 1968 presidential campaign, had left their youngest brother as the logical heir to the family’s political throne. But what happened on Chappaquiddick Island one July night in 1969 sealed the youngest Kennedy’s fate, effectively ensuring that although he went on to enjoy a long and illustrious political career, he would never ascend to the highest office in the land.

It goes something like this. Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, and one of Bobby Kennedy’s “boiler room girls” – young, female political strategists who had worked on his presidential campaign – left a party in the company of Teddy Kennedy, then 37, late that night, ostensibly to catch a ferry to a nearby Martha’s Vineyard town where she was staying. She never made it. Kennedy drove the car in which they were travelling off a bridge into an inlet; he managed to save himself and swam to shore, whilst Kopechne drowned. Kennedy did not alert authorities until the next day, after the car and body had already been found. He later received a two-month suspended gaol sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

Now, why wouldn’t you turn that into a novel? Step up to the podium, Joyce Carol Oates.

Oates is a much-lauded American writer, now in her early 70s, who is also insanely prolific (producing probably close to 100 novels, novellas, collections of short stories, volumes of poetry, plays, essays – she’s even dipped her toe into writing children’s books). But you have to start somewhere. Hence the selection of Black Water, her 1992 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novella that fictionalises and modernises the myth of Chappaquiddick, bringing it into the early 1990s and setting it against a backdrop of a decade of Republican presidency and the (first) Gulf War.

Black Water opens as Kelly Kelleher, a 26-year magazine writer and student of American politics and history, leaves a Fourth of July party on fictional Grayling Island, Maine. She is in a car being driven recklessly by the Senator, who is drunk, making haste towards a ferry that will take the pair back to the Senator’s mainland hotel. But a wrong turn propels them onto an unpaved road and the car plunges into a swamp and sinks, passenger-side down. The Senator frees himself and manages to escape from the submerged vehicle, rashly and callously (he uses her head as leverage to expel himself from the car, kicking away her clawing hands in doing so) leaving behind his badly injured passenger.

The narrative then proceeds to shift back and forth through Kelly’s immediate and distant past, revealing the naive, idealistic young woman’s back story – her family history, political background, schooling, old boyfriends, battles with depression and anorexia, her thoughts, ideals and dreams. The afternoon is also revealed in flashback, as the Senator – a well-oiled Democrat in his mid-50s, separated, with grown children, who, a couple of years previously, had turned down Michael Dukakis’s offer of the vice-presidency on his doomed 1988 presidential campaign – turns up unexpectedly to the party, hosted by Kelly’s friend Buffy St John, with whom she is staying for the weekend. A friend and peer of Buffy’s boyfriend, lawyer Ray Annick, the Senator quickly takes a shine to Kelly, who knows of him well, having written her senior honours thesis on him. They slip away from the party, share kisses on a nearby beach and he invites her back to his hotel, presumably to consummate their tryst. But they miss their original allotted leaving time as the party continues into the night and the Senator continues to imbibe, becoming increasingly inebriated, before finally – and fatefully – getting behind the wheel of his rented Toyota.

This is interspersed with passages of Kelly trapped in the underwater vehicle, slipping in and out of lucidity and consciousness. Oates keeps the imagery sparse but spine-chilling – and it is no less horrifying in its simplistic, yet compelling depictions of Kelly’s fight against the reality that the Senator is not coming back to save her, despite her imaginings that he is descending into the murky, polluted water time and again, calling her name repeatedly, struggling with the crumpled, caved-in vehicle, knocking on the windscreen. Or her hallucinations – of ambulances, hospital gurneys, a schoolfriend of yesteryear who attempted suicide, her parents, her deceased grandparents, a published article on capital punishment – which meld and swirl around her head as her life ebbs away. It is superb, sublime writing, but it is often near-unbearable to read these passages; Oates should be applauded for providing the relief of the narrative – just when you think you can’t possibly take any more, the focus shifts to some aspect of Kelly’s past, letting the reader breathe again, if only for a few pages or so, before plunging them right back into, well, the black water.

While I wouldn’t say Black Water will necessarily end up being my favourite ANRC book – nor that I will be revisiting it again in a hurry – there is no doubt this is some of  the most remarkable prose I have read in simply eons. And it is a great introduction to an extraordinary writer, albeit judging by the evidence proffered in this slim, 154-page volume. When Andy and I (eventually) get around to doing a version of ANRC that consists of different books by authors we’ve discovered in previous Reading Challenges, my money is definitely on Joyce Carol Oates making the grade. As the kids say, this is most definitely the shiz (hold on – that is what the kids say, right?)

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