Like Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, this roman à clef takes a notorious American political incident (though in this case one from the 1970s) and fictionalises it to provide some fascinating insight into the people behind the famous faces. A Democratic Senator meets a young woman at a Fourth of July party and they decide to drive home together. On the way to catch a ferry, the Senator (who has been drinking) loses control of the car and it crashes through the guardrail and into a marsh. As it sinks we learn in flashback what brought them to this moment.
I submit this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“… suddenly, the road flew out from beneath the rushing car and they were struggling for their lives sinking in black water splashing across the windshield seeking entry as if the dreamlike swampland on all sides had come now alive reaching up to devour them.”
“Am I going to die? – like this?”
This brief novel from one of American’s most important writers (who, incidentally, has also written mysteries as by “Rosamond Smith” and “Lauren Kelly”) is, like much of her best work, inspired by a true story: in this case, the book is clearly based on the car crash at Chappaquiddick in 1969 when Edward Kennedy’s car plunged into a channel. Mary Jo Kopechne died while Kennedy was later convicted for leaving the scene of an accident and failing to report it for several hours (this has led some to even speculate that Kennedy may not in fact have been in the car at all at the time). This story also served as the basis for Brian de Palma’s extraordinary conspiracy thriller, Blow Out. However, while reading Oates’ take, I found myself mostly reminded of a classic comedy episode of The Rockford Files entitled ‘The Gang at Don’s Drive-In’ in which Anthony Zerbe plays a writer working on a novel in which the protagonist falls from a window and the narrative is then relayed in flashback as the body hurtles on its way down. In the TV episode this is little more than a literary jape (the author it turns out is completely blocked and hasn’t written a word of his novel yet), but here we are in deadly earnest, beginning with the moment in which the car carrying Kelly Kelleher and the unnamed Senator plunges into the water.
“He was gone but would come back to save her”
The book is subdivided into two parts, though given the free-flowing nature of the narrative, they do overlap. In the first we learn about the party at which the two met and learn about Elizabeth Anne “Kelly” Kelleher’s recent heartbreak following the end of a romance, her lack of confidence about her appearance and her sometimes difficult relationship with her parents. She is a liberal who volunteers to help the disadvantaged to learn to read and write and wrote her thesis on the Senator – while her father is a confirmed Republican. As parts of her life so far (she is 26) are made known to us, we return regularly to the plight of the people in the car. The Senator (in his mid fifties, separated from his wife) manages to break free and in the process kicks her away as he swims to the surface while she remains trapped. In the second part of the book her memories and thoughts turn to darker subject and she recalls a debates on capital punishment and on the various ‘humane’ methods designed to execute prisoners. The point of view remains exclusively hers until the final chapter. Though we want to know how it will end, this is a poetic book looking at a well-known historical case to extrapolate a story of how the young and inexperienced are often exploited by their elders and is also a disquisition on the state of American politics following the outbreak of the Gulf War after twelve tears of republican rule that rolled back so many of the Liberal policies that had been enacted during the 60s and 70s.
So, will the Senator do the right thing and try to save the girl? Will Kelly make it out alive? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out, knowing in advance of course that history is certainly not on her side …
The book was nominated for the Pulitzer prize and has subsequently been turned into an opera.