Picks and Pans Review: Black Water
by Joyce Carol Oates
Initially, one might wonder why Joyce Carol Oates wanted to write this novella. Chappaquiddick, Teddy, Mary Jo, the bridge. All that, again. Come on.
Yet Black Water, a fictional work inspired by the Kennedy incident, is utterly compelling as Oates replays a drowning woman's final thoughts. In doing so she brings humanity and dignity to a bright young lady who's temporarily smitten with one of our most famous national figures.
A few of the facts have been changed. Kelly Kelleher, 26, is spending a Fourth of July weekend in the '80s at her friend's beach house on Grayling Island, when the Senator joins the festivities. Although he is old enough to be her father, there is an immediate attraction between Kelly and the man who had been the subject of her senior thesis. It's an afternoon of hot dogs, flirting, booze, a walk and inevitable kiss—followed by a hurried drive to the ferry.
Kelly recalls these events as she sits submerged and seat-belted in the black murky water, trying desperately to keep in touch with a constantly diminishing air bubble. She recalls the sloshing vodka and tonic that the Senator held as he took the "short cut," the bridge, the railing—and then, the water. As the Senator kicks against her to get out, she grabs his leg. And then he's gone, leaving her with nothing but her air bubble and his shoe.
Kelly's memories of her childhood, the party and the evening ahead come as a relief to the reader. Her fantasies of the Senator returning to rescue her come at us like a blow. She is simply too decent to doubt it for a minute.
Black Water is powerfully written. Reading it is a wrenching experience. (Dutton, $17)
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