Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

Black Water cover

The firs time I heard about the so-called Chappaquiddick incident was in college. Right after Ted Kennedy died, we were talking about him in one of my classes, and we got around to the various Kennedy scandals, and then my professor remarked, “you know, everyone on the news keeps talking about all the good things that Ted Kennedy did during his life – everyone forgets that he was responsible for a woman’s death.”

Here are the facts: on the night of July 18th 1969, Ted Kennedy left a party held on Chappaquiddick, an island near Martha’s Vineyard. In the car with him was Mary Jo Kopechne, a young woman who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign. On their way to the ferry, Ted Kennedy accidentally drove the car off the road and into Poucha Pond. The car landed upside-down underwater, and although Kennedy was able to escape the car, Kopechne was not. Kennedy claimed he tried to swim to the car several times to help her, but was unable to reach her. After that, he walked away from the accident site, and the car was discovered the next morning by fishermen who then called the police.

Here are the creepy facts and suspicious circumstances: After trying unsuccessfully to reach the car, Ted Kennedy went back to the party, got several of his friends, and they returned to the site and tried to reach the car. When this didn’t work, Kennedy took the ferry to his hotel and went to sleep. At no point during these events did he ever contact the police to tell them what had happened. When Kopechne’s body was finally retrieved from the car, she was found in the backseat, hanging onto the seat with her face tilted upwards – suggesting that there was a pocket of air inside the car after the crash. According to John Farrar, the diver who retrieved her body: “It looked as if she were holding herself up to get a last breath of air. It was a consciously assumed position. … She didn’t drown. She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die.”

I had no idea that this happened, much less that this woman was trapped in a car underwater for at least two hours.. “Nightmare” doesn’t begin to describe it.

You can see how it would make a good subject for a novella: what was going through this woman’s head as she was trapped in the car, dying slowly, hoping to be rescued? And what better person to tackle this sensitive and terrifying subject than Joyce “Men Are Bad and Will Hurt You” Carol Oates?

If you’ve read Oates’ Blonde, you have a good idea of how this story is going to play out. Oates goes for the obvious and most sinister explanations possible: of course her Kopechne stand-in, Kelly, is a wide-eye and naive idealist with a hefty dose of daddy issues and little romantic experience. Of course her sex life gets described like this:

“She’d cried out, short high-pitched gasping cries, she’d sobbed, she’d heard her voice distant, wild, pleading reverberating out of the corners of the darkened room, Oh I love you, I love you, I love love love you, their bodies slapping and sucking hot-clammy with sweat, hair plastered to their heads with sweat, you know you’re somebody’s little girl don’t you? don’t you?

and this:

“…since girlhood, kissing and being kissed, Kelly Kelleher had always felt, not her own, but the other’s, the male’s, desire. Quick and galvanizing as an electric shock.
Feeling too, once she caught her breath, that familiar wave of anxiety, guilt – I’ve made you want me, now I can’t refuse you.

Joyce Carol Oates, you are exhausting.

And of course Ted Kennedy (aka “the Senator”) is an aging, predatory creep who takes full advantage of Kelly’s daddy issues. Of course he’s not only drunk when he drives Kelly to the ferry, but is actually drinking a cocktail as he crashes the car. And of course he not only leaves Kelly behind in the car, but actually kicks her away in his haste to escape.

Oates has this gift for inspiring outrage on behalf of the supposed villain of her historical retellings. In my review of Blonde I was furious at her one-sided portrayal of Tony Curtis, who was by all accounts a total douchebag in real life, but something about Oates’s version of him seemed so deliberately evil, so patently unfair. Black Water was like that. Could we have a little ambiguity, please? Some sliver of goodness in the Senator, something about Kelly to suggest that she’s more than just some wide-eyed innocent trapped in the older man’s web? No, we can’t – the Senator is a bad, bad man and Kelly was a good, good girl and that is that, thank you.

In fact, as I read, I started to be more interested in the Senator’s side of the story. There are so many more questions there: when he tried to swim down to the car, did he think Kelly was alive? How, when he was walking back to the party, did he not see any lights from nearby houses and try to call for help there? Why did he call his friend first and not the police? Why didn’t he call the police at all? What was going through his mind after he had escaped the car?

I wanted to read that story, I realized. Kelly’s story was terrifying and sad, of course, but the Senator’s was where the real mystery was. All Kelly did was drown (WELL that’s the most horrible sentence I’ve ever typed in my life). Alternating viewpoints – going back and forth between Kelly and the Senator before, during, and after the accident – would have been much more interesting, and would have meant a fuller experience (and a longer book)

Ultimately, this story succeeded because it made me really want to read more about the actual Chappaquiddick incident, but not because I appreciated Oates’s take on the event. By now, I’ve learned that when it comes to retelling historical events, she can be extremely one-sided and sensationalist.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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