Critical Context

Increasingly in American writing in the last decades of the twentieth century, the line between fiction and nonfiction has been harder and harder to find. Nonfiction writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese have invaded the territory of the fictionists and appropriated most of their weapons. Conversely, novelists such as E. L. Doctorow and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., have felt perfectly justified in placing their fictional characters in real worlds peopled by historical figures. As Doctorow has remarked, there are no longer separate categories of fiction and nonfiction today, only narrative.

In Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates enters this tradition. There is no denying that the basis for the action in her novella is recent political history, specifically the events at Chappaquiddick. What Oates has accomplished is to make that history taut with terror in the retelling. Yet in dredging up this tragedy, Oates has made little attempt to disguise its origins, and the reader can only feel a kind of vague discomfort; the history is too recent, the players all too alive—or dead. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), in contrast, uses historical personages at the turn of the century to flesh out the tale; Susan Sontag’s more recent The Volcano Lover (1992) is a historical romance set in the late eighteenth century. For the first time, Oates is using living people as the foundation for her fiction, and it is unsettling.

Oates has always posed questions with uneasy answers, however, and it is thus relatively simple to place Black Water in the context of her literary career. Like many earlier novels and short stories, Black Water delineates American culture not only from its violent outside but from the troubled inside as well. Reviewing Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., commented that “a future archeologist equipped only with her oeuvre could easily piece together the whole of postwar America.” That description applies to Black Water as well—not merely the actual American social history, the misuse of political power, but also the psychological truths. Black Water continues the excavation Oates has been doing for thirty years, at a different site, and perhaps with different tools, but bringing up the same truthful artifacts of American life. Few novelists have done as much.