BLACK WATER (1992) by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates-Black-WaterLike 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”

Oates-Black-Water2The 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.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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84 Responses to BLACK WATER (1992) by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Thanks, as always, for an excellent review. And that incident – the one Oates addressed in this novel – has stayed in the American psyche for a very, very long time. Interesting I think how some things do and some don’t. This did.

  2. Colin says:

    A much newer novel than I generally read these days but I think there’s scope for a fascinating tale. Generally, I steer clear of political novels (regardless of their shade) as the subject matter soon grates on my nerves. This sounds like it’s as much a political examination as a mystery, would that be fair?

    • To be honest Colin I think the mystery and political trappings are, in a way, window dressing – it’s the characters she is mainly interested in exploring, especially the way young women can be manipulated by older men. It is interesting to me as a relative to the series of thrillers that Oates was writing under her pseudonyms at the time, which like this were also fairly brief (some of her suspense short stories though are very good too). Not her best work but definitely worth a look!

      • Colin says:

        Hmm, I can’t honestly say I’m drawn to this kind of stuff. I may have a look around for some of those short stories though.

        • She is a prolific author who fairly late in her career embraced the gothic and suspense genres with some fascinating results – The Barrens may be the best of her thriller type books but she has published a lot of great story collection (some say at an average of 2 books a year that she publishes too much actually) – her collection, The Female of the Species, is one on my TBR

          • Colin says:

            Cheers. That’s plenty to be getting along with for starters.

          • Anything to oblige 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            Actually, Sergio, she was prone to write suspense fiction almost from jump. Her first “major” short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” remains one of the best and most disturbing suspense stories I’ve read. (The adapters of the story for the film SMOOTH TALK obviously couldn’t handle the story as it was, and tore the guts out of the narrative and changed the latter half altogether.)

          • Never seen the film actually I take your point about her work in general and the story in particular of course (must re-read it) but it just seemed to me that when she looked into using pseudonyms (which got uncovered in advance of publication, allegedly to her chagrin) it seemed to mark a transition into specific engagement with the genres.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Oates is one of those authors I keep meaning to read – but the books of hers I have on the pile are huge, so this might be a good way to get acquainted! Lovely review, and like the way you draw in other comparisons like the Rockford.

  4. neer says:

    This book is on my wishlist now. I love books where there is an examination of the past. Thanks Sergio and didn’t that particular incident finish Kennedy’s presidential ambitions?

  5. I’ve been reading of Joyce Carol Oates’ work for 40 years. She’s prolific. I prefer her short stories to her hovels. You’re on target with BLACK WATER.

  6. Kelly says:

    I didn’t know this was the inspiration for BLOW OUT. I love Oates, and BLOW OUT is one of my favorite films. This is definitely getting read by me, and soon. Thanks for the rec.!

    • Would hate to give the wrong impression Kelly – I just meant the actual historical event inspired the book and the film. I agree, Blow Out is an incredible movie, though I expect both of us to get disabused of this by Todd very shortly 🙂

      • Todd Mason says:

        Well, for a De Palma film…it’s still a De Palma film…

      • Kelly says:

        Thanks for clearing that up. I don’t know much about the actual event, so I’m still intrigued.

        • Well, I wish I felt I really knew the full story of course but there is a reasonable summary of the Chappaquiddick events here. Blow Out remains one of my favourite films of all time, as much for the way that it treats the original incident as a kind of basically unknowable ur-text of modern American political chicanery and for the way it looks at the media’s involvements, treatments and filtering of the event and the way it seeps into our unconsciousness.

  7. Yvette says:

    Thanks for another well-written post, Sergio. Oates is an author I’ve been hearing about for ages but for one reason or another, I’ve never read her work. She is certainly prolific. I simply must get over whatever it is that keeps me from reading her.

    I do remember the initial scandal which is the inspiration for this book. I think, I really do think, that Kennedy tried for the rest of his political life to make up for what happened. At least that’s the impression I got.

    • I think you are probably right there Yvette – and in a way, one would hope that that were true …

      • Todd Mason says:

        As with most Kennedy scandals, the attitude I gathered from his deportment was “So? Get over it!” It is remarkable how much people want the Kennedys to not have been a bunch of spoiled, arrogant mooks…my parents were actually angry with me for thinking that William Kennedy Smith was probably guilty of the rape charges lodged against him, and even the irresponsible flight of John Kennedy, Jr. that killed him and his wife were somehow not indicative of a reckless disregard of good sense, to say the least. Much less the famous treatment of women (admittedly, often at least women who allowed themselves to be so treated) by JFK and RFK, and presumably Teddy as well…and the family’s treatment of their sister when she was acting out…and JFK’s unnecessarily bellicose public attitude during the Cuban Missile situation, when behind the scenes the US and USSR were quietly trading no Cuban missiles for no more Turkish missiles, which contributed to both the assassination of Kennedy and the deposing of Khrushchev, who had been at least a reforming force in his nation…and…

        • Given its decimation you might argue that the Kennedy family more than got its share, reckless and arrogant or not and I’m not sure I’d agree about Kennedy’s public tactics over Cuba, which I think were to a degree aimed to mask the back channel activity from the hawks circling the administration. Brezhnev certainly used the perceived defeat over Turkey, no question about that, but he was perceived as too much of a liberaliser anyway. Shame what happened to Khrushchev, though you could argue he got off easy compared with the Kennedy brothers …

          • Todd Mason says:

            Kennedy was a hawk; he had little to fear from the Scoop Jacksons of the world, much less the Barry Goldwaters. Less of a pity what happened to Khrushchev than what happened to the people of the USSR as the liberalization was reversed (and all the Prague Springs were crushed subsequently). I will add your apparent fondness for the Kennedys to your fondness for De Palma films to my Hmm, wonder why That would be lists…

          • Not exactly off topic I suppose Todd … but as a card-carrying Commie, let me just say that, well, if we’re making comparisons (and I’m afraid Scoop is a bit off my daily radar) then I don’t have to buy into the Camelot idolatry to think Kennedy was a much better option that Nixon in 1960 – good enough? 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            And, sadly, aside from the two assassinations and the eldest dying in combat, the other troubles they either brought on themselves or inflicted on each other.

          • Yeah, apart from that and a surprisingly large number of plane crashes …

  8. TracyK says:

    When I learned that Oates had written some mysteries, I wanted to read some of her fiction (of both types). Still haven’t done that though. Maybe this is a good one to try.

    • Thanks TracyK – I have only dipped in and out of her work over the years – the short stories might be a better place to start. This is an interesting but certainly very experimental work.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    Oh, Oates was writing gothic fiction before she started using pseuds. And there was a prefiguring of this in the likes of THEM…I’ve noted elsewhere that Oates and Barry Malzberg were in the same class in the writing program at Syracuse. That’s a very full shelf in a library at Syracuse.

  10. Hi Sergio, I’m with Yvette all the way. The real-life character of the story and your excellent review has convinced me to read this and other books and stories by Oates much sooner than I might have planned. Her “suspense short stories” have piqued my interest.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    Just to give you some details, Oates published her first collection devoted explicitly to horror and suspense fiction, NIGHT-SIDE, in 1977, and was writing and publishing Gothic novels under her own name beginning with _Bellefleur_(1980), and continuing with _A Bloodsmoor Romance_ (1982); she contributed “The Bingo Master” to Kirby McCauley’s original anthology DARK FORCES in 1980, which might’ve been her first contribution to an explicitly horror-oriented medium, as opposed to a little magazine or a slick…all this well before she started publishing under pseudonyms…that we’re aware of! ZOMBIE, by the way, is an old favorite of mine among her work based on actual events, in this case Jeffery Daumer.

    • Thanks for all this Todd, as always – especially I haven’t read any of these in fact (including Zombie actually, which surprises me but there you go …)

      • Todd Mason says:

        Not at all…I’m a little caught out that I don’t remember the earliest contributions by Oates to the likes of EQMM, but she was publishing in TWILIGHT ZONE magazine no later than 1981, and in OMNI and F&SF later in that decade.

        • Never read any of the EQMM but actually something about TZ rings a bell actually – gosh, really taking me back chum – when I used to visit the US regularly in the 80s and 90s I think I sucked a fair amount in but it’s pretty much stayed locked to that era in my poor old cerebellum!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yes, TWILIGHT ZONE the magazine flourished in the 1980s, as a sort of OMNI-like gamble on the part of Montcalm Publications (as OMNI was an offshoot of PENTHOUSE, TZ was an offshoot of the similar skin magazine GALLERY), and it had a companion, NIGHT CRY, that was even more the primary market for horror fiction on newsstands in the that decade.Damned near alone this, even with some horror in F&SF’s mix and to much lesser extent in ELLERY QUEEN’S and ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINES, much as BLACK STATIC is now…

          • I had no idea that the TZ mag came from that stable … There is a new comic now I think, currently written by J. Michael Straczynski which intrigues me because he was head writer and story editor of better-than-you-might-think syndicated version of the show in the 80s …

  12. Todd Mason says:

    Sadly, though, in the long run there wasn’t Enough difference between Nixon and JFK…and RFK was even more hard to distinguish from Nixon in policy and portfolio till he supposedly had a change of heart after finally meeting some poor people in the mid ’60s…and noting that his old enemy LBJ was tapping out in ’68, and that Eugene McCarthy was making headway against the heir apparent Humprhey. (Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was king of the Democratic Party hawks.throughout his long career…the WIKIPEDIA entry on him is rather good: “The political philosophies and positions of Jackson, a Cold War anti-Communist Democrat, have been cited as an influence on a number of key figures associated with neoconservatism, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.[1] The Henry Jackson Society is named in his honor.[…]Though Jackson opposed the excesses of Joe McCarthy (who had traveled to Washington State to campaign against him in 1952), he also criticized Dwight Eisenhower for not spending enough on national defense, and called for more inter-continental ballistic missiles in the national arsenal.”

    I don’t know if I’ve ever carried a card as a Green…we’re in favor of paperless parties! I have to wonder if my cousins in Milan and nearby lean more Northern League or more Eurocommie…

    • Todd Mason says:

      Or, even, Humphrey. There was an attempt to draft Martin Luther King, Jr. as the presidential candidate of a leftist party, with Benjamin Spock as the VP, to run in ’68, but as we all know, that wasn’t given the opportunity to happen, even if MLK would’ve agreed…given the American Independent Party on the populist Right that year, and Nixon and Humphrey, one wonders how the dynamic might’ve changed. Spock eventually ran as the People’s Party presidential candidate, with a typically small return for small parties, in 1972…the first year Scoop Jackson tried and failed to get the Democratic nod.

    • I thought Scoop was a a sports journalist … 🙂

      • Todd Mason says:

        Yeah, I was surprised to see the other Scoop Jackson in WIKI today. Never had heard of him previously.

        • Glad it’s not just me then – phew 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            To be clear, of course, I’d never heard of the sports journalist “Scoop” Jackson till last night. Which is a bit odd, because he’s certainly been around, but sports journalism, literary or a/v, doesn’t make too much of an impression on me too oftenl

            J. Michael Straczynski, as you probably know, was also the producer/creator/frequent writer of BABYLON-5 and its offshoots…he succeeded Harlan Ellison (who had a different title but I think essentially the same job) at the CBS Productions revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which they continued in syndication after dropping from the network (for a while there in the ’80s there were two television series tied in with newsstand speculative fiction magazines, TZ and the atrocious Spielberg anthology series licensing the name of the mostly sf magazine AMAZING STORIES) and that probably had been where they met (Ellison would appear on B5 in a small role, I believe his only pro acting gig)…JMS had previously provided episode guides and other contributions to TZ magazine.

            (And, in case anyone doesn’t realize this, please don’t confuse the largely not-bad or better TZ episodes from the CBS/syndie run with the absolutely awful episodes from the UPN revival, hosted by Forest Whitaker.)

          • I’m a big very fan of JMS though have never sampled his considerable body of work as a comic book writer. Ellison (truly one of my literary heroes) was credited as ‘creative consultant’ throughout B5’s run, contributed a couple of credited plot lines and did some voiceovers too. Sadly his planned sequel to Demon with a Glass Hand (still my favourite Outer Limits episode ever) to star Robert Culp never came to fruition. Never been able to make myself watch the Forest Whitaker iteration – but I’m a huge fan of the Serling version (the blu-rays are exquisite) even if his work did go noticeable downhill after the first two seasons (most of the best of the last season’s scripts were by Richard Matheson).

          • Todd Mason says:

            Still punchy with cold medicine…aside from voiceover work (on B5 and elsewhere), Ellison has also appeared in several tv series (I knew but didn’t remember I’d seen him in a small role on PSI FACTOR, the decent Canadian X-FILES variant) and IMDB mentions him as being essentially an extra in one of William Rotsler’s skin films (probably a few more than that, over the years Rotsler was active in that field).

          • Sheesh – I don’t think I’ve seen any of the Rotsler films – I suspect I can probably do without it, love his work though I do …

          • Todd Mason says:

            Oh, Rotsler and Ellison were old friends…Rotsler was a cartoonist, in sf fandom and professionally, who also wrote some fiction (his “Patron of the Arts”, later expanded to a novel, struck a chord with a lot of readers, though Ellison is on record, perplexed at how little he liked the story)…but is most famous in the larger world, and certainly among cinephiles, for his skin flicks in the 1970s.

          • Did Rostler do those King Kong cartoons found in Partners in Wonder? I remember liking that a lot!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yes, Rotsler drew “The Kong Papers” reprinted in PARTNERS IN WONDER. Based on Caroline Kennedy, too.

          • Thanks for that Todd – cam’t pretend I know anything about Caroline Kennedy however …

    • For you sake I really hope it’s not the Northern League, those guys are nuts!

      • Todd Mason says:

        Wouldn’t be the first of my relatives to be nuts…

        • Given that most of the people I know back home voted for that sorry excuse for bottom feeding scum that is Berlusconi, I cannot cast the first stone- though if I had one, I know in which direction it would go!

          • Todd Mason says:

            And what was their reason for voting Silvio the Slime-Mold, anyway?

          • How long you got mate? Mostly of course a deep-rooted and to a degree understandable cynicism about politics and politicians – Europeans are a lot more sophisticated about the arena than many others but of course there is a string sense of ennui that comes with that and so it’s not why voted – it;’s to do wuth the fact that those opposed to him didn;t vote at all or that my beloved communists are always splintering and fighting among themselves – this is the trap of a truly representative system that is prone to weakness – and Italy is historically prone to that due to its inherent instability. But mostly of course because the guy bought out most of the news outlets and people believed he would be good for business – which he was … but his only. But don;t get me started Todd – you’ll never hear the end of it – but now he is a convicted felon – yay!

      • Todd Mason says:

        They are the American Independent Party of Italy…and a lot more durable (though clearly our Tea Partisans are heirs of the AIP in many ways).

    • robert says:

      Strangely, viewed from France, the most (or one of the most underrated) “recent” president was L. Johnson, especially because he managed to pass the vote on the civil rights.

      • Thanks for the feedback – and I quite agree Robert, LBJ is a fascinating figure and the extraordinary series of books, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (four volumes and counting) being devoted to his very long career in politics by Robert Caro are certainly helping to bring this into light.

  13. robert says:

    I had never realised that the film, Primary colors, was based on this story with Kennedy. But I must admit that I only saw few minutes of the film and didn’t bother looking for more as I was convinced it was just another of this US political films about a crooked politician becoming (or trying to become) president (strangely something very rarely depicted in french films, where the figure of the president is almost sacrilegious to show 🙂 ) So maybe I will give it another try since I had heard about the real life kennedy’s accident and what happened afterward (not a very noble behaviour I believe)
    But I saw “blow out” and that is a real good one!

    • Hi Robert, thanks for the feedback but I must apologise for sowing more seeds of confusion. Primary Colours was partly based on the Clintons at the time of the Gennifer Flowers tapes – all I meant was that both of these books were examples of roman-à-clef where the fictional version in some ways provided a lot more plausible insight than straight reporting of the events ever did!

      • robert says:

        Ah, I didn’t read carefully enough then… 🙂
        My oh my, I had completely forgotten about this affair… I guess the M. Levinski one took over.
        You know A. Ferrara made a film about DSK and what happened at the Sofitel hotel. And maybe another film maker will shoot a film about Holland’s affair with J. Gayet. It would be a very cheap film since it would only require a motorbike and 2 croissants 🙂

  14. Peggy Ann says:

    I have quite a few of her books on the bookshelf. I keep meaning to read them but the size of them keeps me putting them off too. I will get to them at least one of them this year!

    • Thanks Peggy Ann – she is a really varied author though We Were the Mulvaneys for instance, while a huge hit, is one of her longest – I know a lot of people who got that one to start and I’m not sure it’s the right place frankly …

      • Todd Mason says:

        I’d start with FIREFOX, or THEM, or certainly the story collections WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? (her first best-of) or the horror/suspense collections (for those who love that sort of thing). I started with SOLSTICE. ZOMBIE would be fine.

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