Book Review: Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

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Written in prolepsis, this novella tells the story of Kelly Kelleher, a young woman who meets a US Senator at a friend’s Fourth of July party. Only known as “The Senator,” a thinly veiled version of Ted Kennedy, Kelly finds herself in his car on the way to a romantic interlude. Kelly is an analogue for Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman at the heart of the Chappaquiddick Scandal (See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/incident-on-chappaquiddick-island). A car accident thrusts the potential lovers into a swamp, into the titular black water. The Senator breaks free. Kelly is left trapped in the car as the water rises.

The first time I read this book, I was in eleventh grade. It was on our required reading list. Forgive my momentary melodrama but this book changed my life. I am so thankful for my eleventh grade English teacher for assigning this book. I’ve probably read it 15 times since then (to be fair, that was a long time ago).

I have always been a reader. I read all the normal kid stuff and a lot of inappropriate adult stuff at a young age. It was something I shared with my mother and sister. We passed books around the house and even though we are now far apart, we still tend to do it. Reading Black Water made me realize, perhaps for the very first time, that fiction was a serious art form. It has the power to illuminate swampy marshes. Truth becomes invention.

The themes in the novella are profound:

  • A younger woman trusting an older, charismatic man
  • Violation of that trust
  • The heart of American politics
  • The process of death
  • The operation of femininity
  • The inner workings of a scandal

All told in 154 pages.

When I am in need of inspiration, I’ll find myself grabbing a copy of Black Water and opening it at random. It was, in fact, the basis for my short story, Boys of the Way Back. Some chapters are only a paragraph long – I’ll read it like I would read a poem. Lots or repetition and syntax. Lush imagery. All read between the lines.

I’ve recommended this book to a lot of people and its been pretty polarizing: they either absolutely love it or absolutely hate it. I will always fall in with the former.

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