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, off Boothbay Harbor, Maine. During the course of the afternoon that he spends talking, drinking, and playing tennis with the younger people gathered at the party, he meets and captivates Kelly Kelleher, and the two of them leave 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.
But something goes terribly wrong. The drunken senator misses the ferry road and ends up on a narrow and abandoned track. Kelly repeats several times, “I think we’re lost, Senator,” but it is Kelly who is finally lost. 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 stumbles several miles to call a friend for help; the accident, he yells into the phone, was the girl’s fault.
If the events sound familiar, they should, for they follow closely the July, 1969, incident at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, when Senator Ted Kennedy left the scene of a similar accident and Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned. The major difference is time: The model occurred decades earlier, but Joyce Carol Oates brings this incident up to the fictional present. Still, readers are witnessing an imagined version of recent political, but very personal, history.
The model of the Kennedy character is only thinly disguised. Although his brothers are not mentioned, 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,” “an exhausted middle-aged man beginning to go soft in the gut, steely-gray curly hair thinning at the crown of his head, his left knee…sprained back in January playing squash.…” As Kelly thinks as she heads toward her death “in the bouncing jolting car”:
Here was one of the immune, beside her: he, one of the powerful adults of the world, manly man, U.S. senator, a famous face and a tangled history, empowered to not merely endure history but to guide it, control it, manipulate it to his own ends. He was an old-style liberal Democrat out of the 1960s, a Great Society man with a stubborn and zealous dedication to social reform.…
The Senator “had been among the three leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988,” Oates tells her readers, but he withdrew “in favor of his old friend the Massachusetts governor,” Michael Dukakis. If Ted Kennedy is never named here, most of the other political players are; The Senator, for example, is “eleven years younger than George Bush.” Not only the players but also the drama of contemporary politics gets this full Oates treatment:
During the most recent presidential election Kelly had volunteered her services working for Governor Dukakis’s doomed campaign. She had not known the campaign was doomed until the final weeks of the contest, each time she saw or heard George Bush it seemed self-evident to her that anyone who saw or heard him must naturally reject him, for how transparently hypocritical! how venal! how crass! how uninformed! how evil! his exploitation of whites’ fears of blacks, his CIA affiliation!
Oates is using undigested political history here, as the people at the party
spoke of the outrage of the recent Supreme Court decisions, the ideologically sanctioned selfishness and cruelty of a wealthy society, how systematic the dismantling of the gains of the civil rights movement, the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the end of an era.
The Senator tells the younger people around him that afternoon how “the Gulf War has given your generation a tragic idea of war and of diplomacy: the delusion that war is relatively easy, and diplomacy is war, the most expedient of options.”
The center of the novel, however, is less the powerful senator and contemporary history than Kelly Kelleher, a naïve young woman who is the innocent victim of The Senator’s political and sexual power. Ironically, Kelly wrote her senior honors thesis at Brown University on The Senator, and her collegiate idealism still thrives: She not only writes articles now on issues such as capital punishment for the liberal Citizens’ Inquiry (an article that The Senator thinks he may have read), but she also teaches two nights a week in a literacy program in Roxbury, 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 and has regularly starved herself as self-punishment for her imagined failures. The child of a rich suburban family, she ends up at the bottom of a creek with a fractured skull and a 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 was fighting to escape the water, she was clutching at a man’s muscular forearm even as he shoved her...
(The entire section is 2161 words.)