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A Girl’s Ballad : “Black Water,” <i> by Joyce Carol Oates</i> (Dutton: $17; 154 pp.)

Joyce Carol Oates, who writes differently, unexpectedly and inexhaustibly, has written the ballad of Chappaquiddick. She has done it with startling success, without a lapse; giving the particular story we partly know, and partly guess at, a twanging universality.

There are only a few universal folk subjects. One is the young woman entreating the light that male power and array have so long wielded, and being cut down. “Seduced, broken, abandoned” -- the theme goes through the ages: opera, soap opera, music hall, Victorian heart-throb, and back to classical myth. Semele burns to ashes when Jupiter comes to her in the full glory she asked for; conversely, Daphne can only escape Apollo’s magnificence by turning into a tree.

Oates does not write “Ted Kennedy” and “Mary Jo Kopechne.” She writes: “The Senator and Kelly Kelleher.” The time is now, not 20 years ago, and Kelly seems to be marginally higher on the social scale than the drowned woman at Chappaquiddick; she earned a summa at Brown for a thesis on the Senator.

Otherwise, though, Oates makes the externals pointedly similar. The Senator, a likely presidential candidate, has the Camelot aura. He is in his 50s, a womanizer and drinker, with a broad jaw, white teeth, thickening waist, unfocused blue eyes, and a network of capillaries around his nose. She is blonde, a political groupie, and friend to a woman in the Senator’s partying set.

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They meet at a swinging weekend affair at an island cottage; he takes her off to catch the last ferry to the mainland, where he has rented a motel room. Unsteady with drink, he makes a wrong turn, and the car skids off the road and into the water just before a plank bridge. She drowns; he struggles ashore and telephones one of his companions to come and tidy up.

The account of the accident uses a harsh possible version. The Senator makes no effort to help Kelly; he steps on her face, in fact, struggling from the car. There is no diving back in to find her. Even apart from this, Oates writes a desolating portrait; and she links it to something wider than the particular reckless tragedy.

There is a vestigial warmth and sensitivity in the Senator, but it is fossilized from being used for so many years for public ambition. He charms Kelly when they meet and walk along the dunes. He seems genuinely to see and listen to her; perhaps he even does. But the practiced reflexes of power are triggered -- Oates fuses the instincts of political and erotic conquest -- and Kelly is one more joyless score. As he skids the car along the dirt road, downing a vodka and tonic while Kelly holds another one ready, he is morose and no longer charming. Sex is still to come, presumably, yet already he is in a state of post-coital depression.

Careering his car “with such impatient exuberance,” the Senator stands for the destructiveness of power when it is oblivious and uncurtailed. (With every phrase of “Black Water” strung to a perilous tension, an offhand mention of the Gulf War is, of course, not offhand.) But the life of the book, its essence and outrage, is the drowning voice of Kelly.

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If Oates is opportunistic, it is not in reviving the old story of Chappaquiddick and the seemingly eternal story of the Kennedys. It is in bringing back Anita Hill, Robin Givens and the woman who for long was nameless in the Palm Beach rape trial; and, after everything the facts have revealed, providing them the deeper revelation of imagination. Opportunism; and I am all for it.

“Black Water” is told in two voices. One is Kelly’s, confused, uncertain of who she is, what she wants, what she has done. It is fragmented; it relives the incidents of the day and brief moments of the past. It speaks, pain-shocked, of imaginary rescue in the car’s trapped air bubble, and it speaks as the water fills her lungs. The other voice, weaving among narrative, lament and judgment, adopts the musical reiteration and the emotion fortified by distance of the ballad singer.

“You know you’re someone’s little girl. Oh yes,” for example is repeated three times. Her father would say it, swinging her powerfully up in the air. It was a triumphant height; it was also a helpless one. Commanding and self-willed, it was her father who insisted on drastic and probably needless surgery to correct her wall-eye. His possessions had to be perfect. The same “little girl” phrase sounds in her mind with a lover who abused and left her; she hears it again in the Senator’s peremptory courtship.

We get a portrait of an unconfident young woman; pretty but with a slight skin condition; ambitious -- she writes an occasional article for a small-circulation liberal magazine -- but depressive; anorexic but determined to put on weight. She has a mind of her own, yet she tries to follow all the fashions and phrases of the day. Her thoughts are a tumble of cliches, with interruptions of lucidity and perceptiveness.

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She wants to shine, to be lifted. When her friend invites her to a weekend party with a political crowd, she goes, knowing she should make an effort to be in the thick of things. There is a faint possibility that the Senator -- an idol whom she’s never met -- may drop in. When he does, and picks her out for a stroll, some warmly sensitive conversation, and a sudden, thick-tongued kiss, she feels chosen. Flattered, repelled, but undeniably chosen. Never mind that what she feels isn’t her desire but his. She is governed by those phrases she’s heard and read, and one of them surfaces: “I’ve made you want me, now I can’t refuse.”

There are other such governing phrases. The night before, when she and her friends were doing their nails and giggling over their horoscopes, hers (she is a Scorpio) tells her to seize what she wants, and not be passive. “Poor Scorpio,” the narrative voice reiterates, with ironic compassion.

She rationalizes the Senator’s command invitation into her own decision. He truly wants her -- he even mentions a job. It is up to her, says Scorpio, to take an initiative. “So she did, she had and would.” Riding off in the lurching car, nervous about the vodka, the speed and the direction, she thinks: “She was the girl. She was the one he’d chosen. She was the one to whom it would happen.”

It is a phrase of terrible confusion and resonance, recalled in the dwindling air bubble, one leg pinned in the wreckage, clutching the Senator’s shoe which came off as he kicked loose her grip. Even then; hallucinating about a rescue, seeing her parents waiting onshore as she skips out, four years old again, “as the black water filled her lungs and she died” -- even then, he is trapped in self-blame and the cliches of victimization:

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“The black water was her fault, she knew. You just didn’t want to offend them. Even the nice ones.”

As the ballad does, “Black Water” wields its own cliches, its own simplicities, its own melodrama. But Oates shapes them to a sharp and tragic purpose, and transforms them in the steely rhythms of her language.


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