Is every fictional treatment of a real-life crime or scandal, by definition, an ”exploitation novel”? Not necessarily. Sometimes the raw tabloid material is transformed — by boldly imaginative storytelling — into an absorbing, freestanding parallel universe. Think of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) or Don DeLillo’s Libra (about Lee Harvey Oswald). But when page-by-page interest depends largely on the titillating closeness of fiction to fact, or on the more ghoulish evocation of the incident itself — well, as the folks at MGM might say, That’s Exploitation!
Even if it’s written by the eminently respectable Joyce Carol Oates, whose new book is a feverish yet static recycling of the tragic accident and epic political nightmare known as Chappaquiddick. True, Oates changes enough details to give Black Water the color of fiction and to satisfy, perhaps, her publisher’s legal department. The island is off the coast of Maine, not Massachusetts. The year is 1991, not 1969. And the victim isn’t 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne but 26-year-old Elizabeth Anne (”Kelly”) Kelleher — who has a much glitzier family, a much Ivy-er degree, and a much better job (at Citizens’ Inquiry magazine) than the real Mary Jo had.
Oates also applies a thick literary varnish to the proceedings — which consist almost entirely of Kelly Kelleher’s interior monologue as she lies trapped in the death car below the surface of the black churning water. Kelly relives, over and over, the moment that evening when the speeding Toyota, driven by ”the Senator,” suddenly flew off an unpaved road and plunged into Indian Creek. In the run-on sentence, stream-of-consciousness style that Oates seems to favor most when she’s least inspired, Kelly’s death terrors and rescue fantasies are juxtaposed with memories of parents, grandparents, an old boyfriend, a suicidal classmate.
And, in a further attempt to give the borrowed story a personal stamp, Oates trots it out as a feminist morality play. Brought up to live for Daddy’s approval, Kelly is insecure and eager to please with men: ”an American girl you want to look your best and give your ALL.” She doesn’t object when the Senator sloshes down vodka tonics as he drives, doesn’t dare tell him (for fear of wounding his male pride) that she’s sure they’re lost. Even later, after the Senator has kicked her in the head while extricating himself from the car, never to return, Kelly stays hopeful — the ultimate Woman-as-Victim.
But, despite fictional specifics, despite all the impassioned prose and heavy-duty irony, Oates offers no compelling alternate vision here. The portrait of Kelly remains sketchy and uninvolving. The feminist theme is announced rather than persuasively developed (”Politics, the negotiating of power. Eros, the negotiating of power”). Ultimately, in fact, Oates seems to be going through the Serious Writer motions, keeping up appearances while feeding on the built-in horror and the Kennedy notoriety. The Senator, after all, unlike the victim, is given no new name. Instead, so that nothing can interfere with the titillation factor, Oates makes him consistently, blatantly recognizable: the Cape Cod retreat, the estranged wife, the presidential ambitions, the liberal politics, the fear of assassination, ”that dimpled grin, the big chunky white teeth…a famous face and a tangled history.”
Call it exploitation — or failed art — or a nastily unique wedding present for the Senator who has everything. Whatever you call it, it’s recommended only for Chappaquiddick addicts and undiscriminating Oates fans. C