BLACK WATER is a fictional tragedy that refuses to abandon its origins in personal political history. “The Senator,” whose name is never given beyond this title, arrives at a Fourth of July party on Grayling Island, Maine. During the course of the afternoon, he meets and captivates Kelly Kelleher, and the two of them leave to catch the last ferry off the Island, to have dinner in Boothbay Harbor, and, presumably, to the spend the night at the motel where the Senator is staying. But the drunken Senator misses the ferry road and ends up on a narrow, abandoned track, and, in the rush to catch the ferry, the rented Toyota skids and plunges into a deep creek. The car overturns in the water, the Senator escapes by crawling over Kelly, and the young woman, who is still pinned in the car, slowly drowns. The Senator, who must stumble several miles to call a friend for help, yells into the phone that the accident was the girl’s fault.
If the events sound familiar, they should, for they follow closely the July, 1969, incident at Chappaquiddick, when a younger Senator Ted Kennedy (he was thrity-seven at the time) left the scene of a similar accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned. The major difference is time: While the model occurred decades earlier, Oates brings this incident up to the fictional present. Still, readers are witnessing an imagined version of recent history. What Oates has accomplished is to make that history taut with terror in the retelling. It is a tribute to the power of the writing that, though readers know the outcome of the story, she makes it as exciting as she does. In the process, however, the fragile line between fiction and...
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