(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Black Water is a fictional tragedy that refuses to abandon its origins in American political history. “The Senator,” the powerful fifty-something politician whose name is never given beyond his title, arrives at a Fourth of July party hosted by Buffy St. John at her parents’ home on Grayling Island, a twenty-minute ferry ride from Boothbay Harbor, Maine. During the course of this afternoon, which he spends talking, drinking, and playing tennis with the younger people gathered at the party, he captivates Kelly Kelleher, and the two of them leave late that evening to catch the last ferry off the island, to have dinner in Boothbay Harbor, and, presumably, to spend the night at the motel where The Senator is staying.

Yet something goes terribly wrong. The drunken senator misses the ferry road and ends up on a narrow and abandoned track. Kelly says, “I think we’re lost, Senator,” but it is finally Kelly who is lost. In the rush to catch the ferry, the rented car skids off the road and plunges into the deceptively deep Indian Creek. The car overturns in the water; The Senator escapes by scrambling over Kelly, who, pinned in the car with broken bones, slowly drowns. The Senator stumbles several miles to call his friend Ray Annick back at the party for help; the accident, he yells into the phone, was the girl’s fault.

The events follow closely the July, 1969, incident at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, when thirty-seven-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy left the scene of a similar accident and Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned. The major difference is time; while the model occurred decades earlier, Joyce Carol Oates brings this incident up to the present. Still, readers are witnessing a fictional version of recent...

(The entire section is 713 words.)