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Joyce Carol Oates: Black Water

Oates has claimed that her novels are not about violence but about the victims of violence and there is certainly a case to be made for that. Similarly, she has claimed that this novel is not about Chappaquiddick. I wanted the story to be somewhat mythical, the almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated. Indeed, while the basic story is very similar to the Chappaquiddick incident, there are many differences. It takes place much later – George Bush Senior is president and the First Gulf War has started. The novel is set in Maine, not in Massachusetts. The (unnamed) senator in this novel has decided not to run in 1988, leaving the field clear for Michael Dukakis. When Dukakis is selected as the Democratic candidate, he offers the vice-presidential slot to the senator, who turns it down, as he knows full well that the Democrats are going to lose. In short it is but it isn’t Kennedy and Chappaquiddick.

Oates tells her story making clear that we know what is going to happen, namely that the woman passenger – Elizabeth ‘Kelly’ Kelleher – is going to die. She tells the story in alternate chapters. One chapter tells of Kelly’s early life and the events leading up to the drive with the senator, while the other describes the drive along a dark country road, so that they can catch the 8.20 ferry and go to the motel, where the senator’s aide has managed to reserve a room for them, even though it is 4 July. We learn that Kelly has written her senior honours thesis on the senator. Initially, we are told that she does not tell him but, finally, we learn that she does and he, of course, is flattered. We learn that she had been invited to Grayling Island, where the action takes place, by her friend, Buffy, who is having an affair with a much older man, Ray Annick, a lawyer who is a friend of the senator. It is Annick who invites the senator, though he has been invited before and not turned up. Kelly works for a magazine called Citizens’ Inquiry. The senator claims to read it and to have read an article she had written for it recently. Kelly has ended an affair with a man known only as G—. She has not had sex since then and is wondering whether she should have sex with the senator, though she suspects that she will. He soon takes a fancy to her and takes her away from the 4 July party, much to Buffy’s disappointment.

Meanwhile we have been following their hurried journey to make the 8.20 ferry. The senator is drunk. He has a vodka and tonic in his hand while driving and Kelly has another one in her hand for him. He does not know the road and takes a wrong turning, using the old instead of the new road to the ferry. Kelly is worried. However, even when he crashes, she thinks it is going to be all right. He manages to escape by placing his foot on her head and propelling himself out of the car. She is convinced that he is going to come back and rescue her. Indeed, she imagines more than once that he is there. We know, however, that he has run away and is phoning Ray Annick to help him. She can breathe for a while as the is air inside the car. She thinks of her family and of Buffy but she also thinks he is going to rescue her. In short, she trusts him and her trust is seriously misplaced, as he is thinking only of saving his skin. All the while Oates makes it very clear that she is going to die. Indeed, even after she is dead, we get her view of her family’s reactions. But, ultimately, as Oates has made clear, her trust has been violated and she is a victim.

It is a relatively short novel – actually a novella – but, as ever, Oates tells it well. Unlike most of her works, we know at once what is going to happen but we still feel worried and concerned. Of course, we identify with Kelly and despise the womanising, drunk, selfish senator, who is using his charm for just another conquest. And it is really only Kelly we see and hear. The other characters, even the senator, are almost peripheral, as Oates is giving us the victim’s perspective and only hers.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Dutton