Joyce Carol Oates.
153 pages. $17. Chappaquiddick. At first glance it might seem like a great idea. An incident that has riveted the nation. Why not update it for today? Like a Greek tragedy, entirely adaptable.
At second glance, the task is not so easy. How does one maintain suspense? The beginning is easy: "The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then, with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger's side, rapidly sinking. Am I going to die? -- like this?"
And so reads the entirety of chapter one in Joyce Carol Oates' novel "Black Water." It makes you want to read chapter two, except that chapter two is much the same except for a few more details . . . ah, the details.
At third glance, one can grasp that either this book is destined to be a potboiler about sex and power, or a poem about death. Ms. Oates has chosen the latter course. The results are mixed.
The heroine is Kelly Kelleher, who wrote her senior thesis on The Senator. Kelly sees things as she wants them to be. Her "sight" problem began as a girl: "From birth, Kelly had had an imbalance in her eye muscles, the name for the defect (you could not escape the fact, it was a defect) strabismus, meaning that, in Kelly's case, the muscles of the left were weaker than the muscles of the right. Unknowing, then, the child had been seeing for the first two confused years of her life not a single image registered in her brain as normal people do but two images (each further confused by a multiplicity of details) unharmoniously and always unpredictably overlapping."
Physically, her defect was corrected but frequently she sees the world in a different way than other people do. She is an idealist; her parents are pragmatic but she is liberal; the world about her is conservative but she believes in The Senator in a way others do not. He kisses her at a Fourth of July gathering. She goes with him in the car. She is trapped in the car breathing air in a bubble that has formed. Her knight will save her. He has to. She believes it.
But Kelly also knows the other side of life. "CAUTION: the sun's ultraviolet rays, salt water, swimming, and overheated blowdryers are serious dangers to BEAUTIFUL HAIR. CAUTION: More than 100,000 American women are infected with the AIDS virus. CAUTION: Beware of disreputable modeling schools promising fashion magazine assignments within twelve months."
A strange set to yoke together. Oates as impressionist. (No, you're right, this is not the Joyce Carol Oates you are used to.) This book-story-poem fits into her novella mode like her 1990 work, "I Lock My Door Upon Myself." The difference is that the poetry of "Black Water" raises it above the other.
My major problem with "Black Water" (as a poem) is that it could be tighter and shorter. Chapters 14 to 25 could have been compressed to increase the dramatic effect. Also, the technique of repeating a short phrase (often italicized) to depict fear, is overused. Ms. Oates has a tendency to become attached to a particular literary technique that she will use over and over for several books. At times -- as in "I Lock My Door Upon Myself" -- this attachment degenerates into self-parody. This does not happen in "Black Water," but she is often very close.
"Black Water" is quick reading; read it aloud at one sitting with someone else. At the very least, you'll stimulate an interesting discussion.
Mr. Boylan is a philosopher and novelist who lives in the Washington area.