With the explosion of newspaper and magazine articles that inevitably accompanied Ted Kennedy’s death this summer, I came across an editorial by Joyce Carol Oates that really got me thinking. Chappaquiddick has become part of the public consciousness and the mythology of the Kennedy family, sometimes even referred to as part of the ‘Kennedy Curse’ (which I think is absurd as it implies Ted was a victim in the event, when he in fact directly caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne). In the article, Oates reflects on what the years following the event meant for Kennedy, and what they mean now that he is gone. Is, as she asks through the words of John Berryman, “wickedness soluble in art” (or ‘good deeds’)? [Side note: this question seems especially relevant again these past few weeks, what with reemergence of the case on Roman Polanski. Ah, to be above the law like these men.] Now, I don’t know that she herself comes to a conclusion on this, or if his life has been filled with ‘good deeds,’ or even if there is a conclusion to come to; what I know is that the article moved me to read Oates’ very thinly veiled roman a clef, Black Water.
The novella tracks a day in the life (the last day) of a young woman, ‘Kelly Kelleher,’ as she attends the Fourth of July party of a friend and meets her political idol, ‘The Senator’. Oates opens the book in full force as the car the drunken senator had been driving begins to sink into the swampy water. It continues as Kelly’s mind jumps back and forth through her life as she attempts to understand what is happening to her in the time (reportedly about 4 hours at Chappaquiddick) between the moment the car entered the water and the moment of her eventual death. The book plunges us into Kelly’s thoughts as they drift in and out of coherency; her often unintelligible associations flow, from her memories and images of death to her imagined rescue, making her last hours all the more tragic. As she continues to hope and believe that the senator will return for her, even hallucinating that he does (rather than call his lawyer), I hoped alongside her while knowing the outcome and wishing it were different. Reading Black Water, one hopes this isn’t really how it happened; that the senator didn’t really use the woman’s body as a platform to propel himself to safety, that he didn’t really wait 8 hours before calling for help, that he didn’t really leave her for dead. But, sadly, we know at least some of these are true.
This is the only book I have read (so far) by the famously prolific Oates, and I find it easy to believe that is considered among her best. The unique writing style makes the story all the more tragic as we haltingly follow Kelly’s disjointed and rambling thoughts. In reading the mind of Kelly Kelleher, we are made to think of what Mary Jo Kopechne would have been thinking that night; it is there that, with Black Water, Oates makes her strongest impact.