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Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

Black Water

by Joyce Carol Oates

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The summer of 1969--man walks on the moon, Hurricane Camille hits the Gulf Coast, and---Chappaquiddick. Those events have always been connected in my mind.

Blackwater recreates Mary Jo Kopechne's (here Kelly Kelleher) final minutes after the Senator abandons her to drown in the submerged car. This short book is repetitive and horrifying as it contrasts the idealistic and naive Kelly's carefree final day with her desparate final minutes. How long will she persist in to her hero-worship of the Senator, and her belief that he is coming to save her? My one complaint--Kelly and the Senator were not new characters--I simply saw Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Apr 25, 2017 |
I'm really confused by why this amazing book doesn't have higher ratings. Even people who have nothing but good things to say about it only give it three or four stars. As for me, books like this are the reason why I've been so stingy with my five star ratings lately. It's blow-your-mind good, and that's what I've been waiting for.

Some of the criticisms I've read are that JCO's fictionalized version of the Chappaquiddick incident unfairly villainizes Ted Kennedy while making his victim, Mary Jo Kopechne, out to be a helpless victim. I didn't read it that way at all. Yes, "The Senator"--as he is referred to in the book--ends up looking bad, but that's because he did a really terrible thing. Yes, we empathize with the the victim--"Kelly"--but that's because she died, and she didn't have to. If The Senator had been more concerned with Kelly's life than his own political career, she would have lived. That part isn't fictional though. It's a historical fact.

I know it's hard to believe that such a good man would do such a horrible thing, but I think that's why this book was written. Because Kennedy lived to go on and do good--even great--things, and the public forgave him. He could never be POTUS, no, but he had a very long, successful political career. Kopechne, meanwhile, lived for at least two hours trapped in a car underwater before suffocating to death.

Both of the main characters were more nuanced than most reviewers are acknowledging. The Senator actually reads like a pretty good guy up until the moment when he abandons Kelly to die. And I think Kelly reads rather flawed. Getting in the car with him was dumb--but at the same time understandable. It wasn't "daddy issues"--it was a lot of complex stuff, and part of it was her own career ambition.

I think, aside from romantic allegiance to the Kennedys, maybe people have issues with the brevity of Black Water, which I would classify as a novella. But because JCO's approach to the book relies so much on repetition, fragments, and run-ons, I think the strategy--which works really well given the way one might process thoughts in the last two hours of one's life, trapped in a car underwater--would have gotten annoying if it had gone on too much longer.

Black Water is unlike any book I've ever read before. It's brilliant and important. I recommend for everyone but especially those with an interest in American history and/or politics. ( )
  StefanieBrookTrout | Feb 4, 2017 |
This is a re=imagining of the Chappaquiddick Incident in which a probably drunk Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car into a river, drowning his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. According to the Wikipedia article, Senator Kennedy failed to call for help for nine hours after the accident and there is evidence that Mary Jo died of suffocation rather than drowning.

In this short novella the senator is only identified as ‘The Senator’, however his life details are quite clear, including the assassination of his brother Bobby. Mary Jo Kopechne is given the fictional name, Kelly Kelleher.

The story plays out from Kelly’s viewpoint as she is dying. She recalls her life, her growing beyond her parents, her decision to attend the swank party where she meets her political idol, The Senator. And finally her fatal decision to leave with him.
Beautifully written. Haunting and haunted. This is one I won’t forget for a long time. ( )
  streamsong | Sep 10, 2016 |
[Black Water] presents the life of a young woman as she re-experiences it in her dying moments. It's an interesting challenge for a writer. Kelly Kelleher is at an Independence Day party thrown by a friend, Buffy St. John, at Buffy's parents summer place on an island off the coast of Maine. A revered U.S. Senator appears as a surprise guest. Kelly is quite enthralled by him, and he seems to be taken with her. Though she's expecting to stay the night, The Senator, as he is referred to throughout the story, persuades her to take the ferry to the mainland with him. He has a room in a motel. Racing to the ferry, The Senator turns onto an unmarked gravel road, assuring Kelly it's a shortcut. But he's racing to the ferry, and he misjudges a turn, and their car plunges off a narrow bridge into a tidal channel.

You know the story, of course, because it's based on a 1969 accident in which a car driven by Senator Ted Kennedy plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, drowning his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne.

Rather than re-adjudicate that incident, author Joyce Carol Oates explores the thoughts of a young woman as she drowns. Her upbringing, her relationship with her parents (what will they think of her now?), her Catholic education, her jobs. Each vignette fades into her immediate peril: "As the black water rose around her, to fill her lungs." She's re-living her life, her friendship with Buffy, her past romances, her surprise that The Senator is attracted to her. As the car sinks into the stinking black water, Kelly tries to escape, grapples with The Senator as he too struggles to escape, then pleads to him to come back for her.

"She could hear him … somewhere above. The surface of the water was close above. There he moved cautiously in the shallows, he was diving, swimming to save her where she was trapped in the dark so she must guide him I'm here I'm here I'M HERE."

Excellent short book. It was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize. I'll give it at least one thumb up.
  weird_O | Aug 4, 2016 |
A thinly disguised fictional retelling of the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in the car accident caused by Ted Kennedy. ( )
  ShelleyAlberta | Jun 4, 2016 |
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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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0452269865, Paperback)

Joyce Carol Oates has taken a shocking story that has become an American myth and, from it, has created a novel of electrifying power and illumination. Kelly Kelleher is an idealistic, twenty-six-year-old “good girl” when she meets the Senator at a Fourth of July party. In a brilliantly woven narrative, we enter her past and her present, her mind and her body as she is fatally attracted to this older man, this hero, this soon-to-be-lover. Kelly becomes the very embodiment of the vulnerable, romantic dreams of bright and brave women, drawn to the power that certain men command—at a party that takes on the quality of a surreal nightmare; in a tragic car ride that we hope against hope will not end as we know it must end. One of the acknowledged masters of American fiction, Joyce Carol Oates has written a bold tour de force that parts the black water to reveal the profoundest depths of human truth.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:29 -0400)

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Flattered by the attentions of a senator she has met at a Fourth of July beach party on Grayling Island, Kelly Kelleher accepts a ride from him, taking a first step toward her final confrontation with death.

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