Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

Black Water

By Joyce Carol Oates

Published 1992

Read Sept 2017

I chose this book for a book discussion group with the assignment “any book with a food in the title”.  “Water” may be a stretch but I was also interested in reading a Joyce Carol Oates book.

I knew from the book cover that this would be at least somewhat about the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969 in which Senator Ted Kennedy drove into a channel.  He survived, but his passenger, 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne didn’t.

Oates has indicated to interviewers that the book is not about that incident.  She’s correct.  The incident in Oates’ book occurs in 1989; the actual incident occurred in 1969. The Senator in this book is in his 50’s and about 25 years older than Kelly; Kennedy was 37 at the time of the incident and only 9 years Mary Jo’s senior. The party in this book was off the coast of Maine and The Senator and Kelly were trying to make a ferry to the mainland.   The actual incident occurred on a bridge connecting a small island to the larger island of Martha ’s Vineyard.  The party in this book was hosted by a college friend of Kelly and The Senator stopped by, a welcomed but not fully anticipated guest; Kennedy hosted the party in the actual incident. In this book, Kelly packed to leave the party with The Senator and said goodbye to her hostess.  Mary Jo Kopechne did not pack and even left her hotel key behind.   In this book, Kelly’s prior connection with The Senator was her college senior thesis; Mary Jo Kopechne had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential election along with the other 5 girls at the party.  In this book, The Senator had been at the 1988 Democratic party convention and had turned down Michael Dukakis’ offer of the vice-presidential candidacy and had overtly decided not to pursue a run at the presidency himself because “he’d understood, as Dukakis had not, that the Democrats’ best efforts in that election year were doomed.”  Kennedy actually did pursue his party’s nomination for presidential candidate in 1980 but lost to Jimmy Carter.  The Senator goes back to the party after the incident in this book to consult the host regarding best next steps; Ted Kennedy did not interact with anyone until the next day.

So it’s not the same incident but Oates was evidentially influenced by it.

She chooses to tell this story primarily from the perspective of Kelly.  Kelly’s backstory is revealed including her feelings of inadequacy following a breakup with her boyfriend and the devastation she felt after Dukakis (for whose campaign she worked) loses the presidential race.  She’s not financially, professionally, or personally where she thought she would be by this age.  She’s trying to break free of expectations of her parents and not live the life they would have preferred but is not consistent with her desire to be a successful, independent, sophisticated woman with substantial and noble views on important topics.  She meets The Senator, an older, very powerful, very successful politician whom she has admired to the point of writing a 90 page paper about him.  She is so compelled by his attention to her  and his physical advances toward her that she accepts his invitation to leave the island and go to the mainland with him. She is aware of what she’s doing, although she continuously fortifies herself that she’s making the right decision to leave with him .

Oates paints The Senator as an older, powerful man, separated from his family and always ready to explore short-term relationships with adoring younger women. We learn some of The Senator’s perspective, in particular after he has escaped the submerged vehicle which involved pushing against Kelly to free himself from the wreckage and move towards the surface.   His most immediate thoughts are focused on the impact of the event on his career and how the press and law will treat him inappropriately.

The story is told quickly in only 154 pages. The 32 chapters vary in length from a mere paragraph to multiple pages.  The scene changes repeatedly between the party, the drive, and spends much time with Kelly’s thoughts and actions while she’s trying to keep herself alive in the submerged car.  There is a sense of a Greek chorus that is chanting the oft repeated phrase:  “As the black water filled her lungs, and she died.”

What does this book accomplish? Why did she write it?  Oates dedicates the book:  “for the Kellys—“.   My take is that Oates has several intentions—1)  keep alive the memory of the actual incident —it occurred almost 50 years ago now and risks fading from general memory; 2) cause us to wonder about the fact that the senator remained a senator despite this incident; 3) cause us to think about the continuing situation of an older, powerful man and his pursuit of a young woman—the fragility of self-perception and the impact of sexual advances of someone with power who knows they have that power.

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