The model of the Kennedy character is only thinly disguised. While he does not have brothers, The Senator is otherwise easy to recognize: Described as separated from his wife of thirty years, he is a man with a “diminutive first name” and “an old-style liberal Democrat out of the 1960s, a Great Society man with a stubborn and zealous dedication to social reform” who “had been among the three leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.”
The center of the novel, however, is less the powerful senator and contemporary political history than Kelly Kelleher, a naïve young woman who is the innocent but willing victim of The Senator’s political and sexual power. Ironically, Kelly wrote her senior honors thesis at Brown on The Senator, and her collegiate idealism still thrives: She not only writes articles now on such issues as capital punishment for the liberal Citizens’ Inquiry but she also teaches two nights a week in a literacy program in inner-city Boston. Kelly is a young woman with a history of acne but not much else; she will not talk about her one lover (“G--”), and she has regularly starved herself as self-punishment for her imagined failures. The child of a rich suburban New York City family, she ends up at the bottom of a creek with a fractured skull and broken kneecap, trapped in a slowly sinking car and abandoned by the man to whom she has been so powerfully drawn. The real tragedy in Black Water is hers. She is another in a long string of familiar Oates characters: single women who lack confidence in themselves and security in their sexuality and who are thus easy prey for more powerful males. Kelly even thinks that “the black water was her fault.” Oates implies that one source of Kelly’s problem is the Kelleher family in Westchester, which gave her all the material things she needed, but few of the emotional. A clue in the novel is the refrain, “You know you’re somebody’s little girl don’t you?” The implication is that the adult woman has never been able to grow satisfactorily beyond that unhealthy childhood line.