Thursday, August 21, 2008

Black Water

I just finished reading Joyce Carol Oates' slim novel Black Water. Though the novella is fiction, it is clearly based (loosely, at least) on Senator Edward Kennedy's Chappaquiddick incident.

A married, unnamed senator meets a young girl - pale-skinned, red-haired Kelly - at a July 4th picnic. By the end of the evening, the two are headed through the dark night to catch a ferry. Having already kissed at the party, Kelly is certain of where their evening will lead. However, the senator has been drinking, and in his rush to catch the ferry before it leaves, he drives recklessly. The rented car the two are riding in flies off the road and into a deep pool of water. While the senator manages to free himself from the sinking wreckage, a seriously injured Kelly is claimed by the accident.

This is a sad book. Kelly is a fragile person. Shy and hesitant, she's had her heart broken in the past. She's so flattered by the senator's attention at the party. She keeps remembering her horoscope for the day, which encouraged her to claim the love she deserved. This risk with the senator, she believes, is a step towards adventure, a step towards being the laughing, confident "American girl" that she wants to be.

This is not an easy book to read. Kelly's mind veers wildly in the final moments of her life, and the scenes her rapidly dying brain focuses on are heartbreaking. And, too, the book makes you think of all the disposable women that rotate through the lives of powerful men, and what eventually may become of them.

Fittingly, Oates dedicates this book to all of the Kellys.


Sandi said...

"disposable women"

Oates tends toward dark themes and endings that involve death (that's been my limited experience with her). Would you recommend this book?

Nicole Bradshaw said...

Oh the whole, I've really enjoyed Oates. I loved We Were the Mulvaneys and Missing Mom. Though both of those books had dark elements, the novels were more about how the characters persevered through trying experiences and came out on the other side of them.

I'm not sure that I would recommend Black Water, though. There are no bright spots in this novella, and you don't have time to really get to know the characters. (Plus, you see the ending coming, so you instinctively try not to get too attached to Kelly.)

I'd say that it was interesting, but I don't recommend that you put it on your short list unless you are a die-hard Oates fan. Now, We Were the Mulvaneys is different. I'd encourage anyone to read that book.