Black Water (1992)

By Joyce Carol Oates

On the opening page of Oates’s novella, Kelly Kelleher, an idealistic 26 year old woman, finds herself sitting beside a famous Senator, seat-belted into a car that is filling quickly with black water. “Am I going to die? — like this?” she asks. Kelly finds herself here after spending the day at a Fourth of July party on Greyling Island, just off the coast of Maine. The unnamed Senator is a friend of a friend, who surprises everyone by showing up at the party and by taking an instant interest in the beautiful Kelly, a Brown graduate too star-struck to admit to the Senator that he was the focus of her Senior Thesis, a paper titled, “Jeffersonian Idealism and ‘New Deal’ Pragmatism: Liberal Strategies in Crisis.” After spending much of the day flirting casually and exchanging a private kiss, the two set off in the Senator’s rented Toyota, bound for the privacy of his mainland hotel room. But then they find the water:

The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then, with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger’s side, rapidly sinking.

Am I going to die? — like this?

Any resemblance between this scene and the actual events of June 1969—when Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the back seat of Ted Kenney’s car after leaving a party on Chappaquiddick Island—are, of course, completely intentional. However, while Oates demands that we return to that night in ’69 (and apparently she began taking notes for this novel when the news first broke), she refuses to treat it as an isolated historical event, that is, an occurrence of the past, over and done. Instead, she transposes the story to the early ’90s, making The Senator an amalgamation of Kennedy, Gary Hart, and any number of other prominent leaders who have abused their power for sexual gain.

That so many of those prominent names belong to Democrats seems to be part of the tragedy at the heart of the novel. Like her heroine, Oates is concerned deeply with “Liberal Strategies in Crisis,” with a political and social present that is none the better for so much past promise. She views that past through a lens of ironic nostalgia (or nostalgic irony, I can’t decide): “Bobby Kennedy’s whirlwind campaign, heady nostalgic days of power, purpose, authority, hope, youth in the Democratic Party—when, disastrous as things were, in Vietnam, at home, you did not expect them to worsen.” But things have worsened. The fireworks displays of Kelly’s day are “lavish and explosive in brilliant Technicolor like the TV war in the Persian Gulf,” conservatism reigns victorious, and The Senator, a man whose “humanitarian ideals” were inspired by the same historical events that shaped Oates, has surrendered to the dominant force in American politics: “compromise.”

But Black Water is first and foremost a novel about Kelly Kelleher and, by analogy, all other women who have been abused, exploited, and discarded by the powerful and by the media that report it. Black Water is so effective (and affecting) because Oates siphons every word of it through the fading consciousness of a dying woman, restoring life and value where both have been too easily forgotten. The last chapters, in particular, when Kelly fights for breath in the small air pocket that remains, when she realizes that The Senator has used her body as leverage so that he might swim to safety, when she clings to the hope that he will return for her, and when she listens helplessly to the short choppy waves “against the slanted roof of this room-snug and safe beneath the covers, Grandma’s crocheted quilt with the pandas around the border,” these last chapters force us to be rightly reoriented from the political to the personal. It’s an important move and an impressive feat from Oates and this stunning short novel.