Okay, so, confession time: until I read this book, I had no idea what the infamous 1969 “Chappaquiddick incident” referred to. I knew it had something to do with Ted Kennedy, and I knew it was bad, but that’s where my familiarity ended. Well, reading Joyce Carol Oates’s Black Water brought the incident into stark, sad, and horrifying detail. Pretty sure I’ll never forgot what happened at Chappaquiddick now–this novella is based off of what we know of the events of that night.
In Black Water, the young and painfully idealistic Kelly Kelleher has a chance meeting with a man only known as the Senator at a party one summer’s eve off the coast of Maine. Over the course of the party they connect and flirt and drink, and the Senator convinces her to catch the ferry back to the mainland for a night in his hotel room. Drunk, lost, and trying to make the last ferry, the Senator drives the car off a bridge and into the swamp. He manages to escape, but leaves her behind in the car to die. (No spoilers–it’s on the first page.)
The book flashes between Kelly as she’s trapped in the car, her time spent at the party, her college days, and even her life as a young girl. Learning her backstory, like what she studied in college, and how passionately she believed in progressive politics, and her interactions with family and friends, makes you grow closer to her, care about her–even as you know that she’s going to die. She’s a regular girl, Oates says, and this happens to us all the time: we are with people who violate our trust, but in this instance, Kelly dies because of it.
The most difficult part for me was that even though I KNEW what happens to Kelly, because we all know what happened to Mary Jo Kopechne in real life, there are these flashes of hope that made me think maybe, just maybe, she’ll survive. She vivdly imagines that Senator will dive in and save her, he’ll call an ambulance, and she’ll go to the hospital surrouded by her family, and even how she’ll explain to them how she’s a “good girl” despite being ready to have an affair with him. But you know the whole time, she’s really in a sunken car, surrounded by cold black water.
Oates’s tone when the omniscient narrator is speaking is terse, sparse, almost cold. I think she did an amazing job writing from Kelly’s point of view, too–her thoughts become less and less lucid as the air in the submerged car runs out, and while her life doesn’t flash before her eyes, Kelly does experience random memories, things that at another time probably seemed unimportant but are given poignancy and meaning at the end. Oates hits her usual themes of power, death, love, and sex, and the place where they all intersect, with characteristic accuracy.
Black Water only clocks in at 160 pages, but damn if that isn’t the tightest and most heart-wrenching 160 pages you’ll ever read. It’s a hard read, but a worthwhile one.
You love the life you’ve lived, you’re an American girl. You believe you have chosen it.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: A chilling novelization of what may have happened during the incident at Chappaquiddick.