Pale, blinking and hesitant, Joyce Carol Oates looks as if she had just emerged from a cocoon. Her replies are earnest but otherworldly, often not quite to the point. She falters, apologizes, would rather be talking about something else than her new novel but tries gamely anyway.
She was only writing a story, she keeps saying, just putting words on paper in the same dreamy, haphazard way she always does. She had no real-world agenda, no scores to settle, never thought anyone would even notice it. She especially says this: The Senator in "Black Water" shouldn't be mistaken for Ted Kennedy, Kelly Kelleher isn't a pseudonym for Mary Jo Kopechne, and this brief tale isn't about Chappaquiddick at all.
This, like a number of things about Joyce Carol Oates, is hard to believe. Even the dust jacket copywriter didn't buy it, paring this American myth down to the barest essentials: "The Senator. The girl. The Fourth of July party on the island. The ride through the night. The accident. The death by water." That, give or take a detail, was Chappaquiddick, and that is "Black Water."
She was fighting to escape the water, she was clutching at a man's muscular forearm even as he shoved her away, she was clutching at his trousered leg, his foot, his foot in its crepe-soled canvas shoe heavy and crushing upon her striking the side of her head, her left temple so now she did cry out in pain and hurt grabbing at his leg frantically, her fingernails tearing, then at his ankle, his foot, his shoe, the crepe-soled canvas shoe that came off in her hand so she was left behind crying, begging, "Don't leave me! -- help me! Wait!"
Oates has been haunted for years -- well, since Chappaquiddick 23 years ago -- by this image, of a young woman drowning in a submerged car, waiting for a savior who never shows. She wrote notes and notes about the scene, but couldn't go any further. Just the trapped maiden and the car, hurtling through the night to a watery grave. "Very romantic," the writer says during a stopover here on a publicity tour, "and yet somewhat sinister."
Last year, certain events sent her back to the material. There was the William Kennedy Smith rape trial; that got her thinking about the Kennedy family again, and the way the more mystically inclined think of them as cursed. And there was the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, which signaled the end of an era in civil rights. Finally, there were the Clarence Thomas hearings. These also seemed to confirm an inhospitable climate today for women and women's rights, an era when the men are as firmly in command as ever and often dangerous to boot. That's prime Oates territory: male violence vs. female powerlessness.
The Senator was sobbing now, furious and incredulous and aggrieved, "The girl was drunk, and she got emotional, she grabbed at the wheel and the car swerved off the road and they'll say manslaughter, they'll get me for -- "
The Senator is more than dangerous: He's a sleaze. He's driving while drunk, literally swilling even more booze while speeding with Kelly to the ferry and, once on the mainland, their planned romantic rendezvous. He misses the turnoff, sends the car into a pond, steps on Kelly in his panic to keep from drowning, refuses to dive back in for her -- no power on earth could induce him to return -- and then concocts a story that is completely at odds with the truth.
You could even argue that he's a murderer, in the poetic if not legal sense. Not according to Oates, though. "Well, murder! It's just an extreme thing to say. I would never, never say anything like this. ... We know what murder is. Murder is premeditated and deliberate. At the very, very most this would be involuntary manslaughter, if you had a prosecutor who would prosecute."
She goes back and forth on this point, however, slipping easily between fiction and reality. "Certainly," she says, "The Senator did behave very badly. I think in real life many people, or even most people, thought that Senator Ted Kennedy himself had behaved very badly following the accident at Chappaquiddick. If I remember correctly he said that he had been in shock for 10 hours and could not therefore report the accident. It seems to be stretching a point. If you believe that, you can believe a lot of things."
Joyce Carol Oates forces one to believe a lot of things. Start with the central mystery: How can one person bring forth so much? Since last fall, she's published "Heat" (a sizable collection of stories), an omnibus collection of 12 plays, and "Snake Eyes" (a psychological thriller written under a nom de plume). Then came "Black Water," admittedly at 154 pages of large type no more than a trifle compared with blockbusters like "Bellefleur" or "A Bloodsmoor Romance." In September will appear "Where Is Here?," another short story collection, followed in October by "The Oxford Book of American Short Stories," a massive project edited by Oates.
This probably leaves out a few projects and tasks -- Oates teaches at Princeton, for one thing, and has developed with her husband, Raymond, a whole small publishing firm, the Ontario Review Press -- but you get the idea: Oates writes novels the way others write short stories, and short stories the way people write notes to their child's school, excusing his absence yesterday. In the last 25 years there have been 20 novels, an equal number of short story collections, and at least a dozen books of other types. No wonder there has been a rumor in the publishing business that there are really two Oateses: Joyce and Carol.
Her output is so voluminous that it's damaged her reputation. Critics grow weary of seeing so much from one person, and perhaps the public does too. Consequently, Oates's major work can be undervalued.
Two years ago she published "Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart," the story of a black family and a white family in the 1950s linked by, yes, a murder. It got a National Book Award nomination but only a glancing amount of respect. Sales were unimpressive. It was just another novel from Joyce Carol Oates.
Unsurprisingly, she has often felt herself an isolated figure, misunderstood and misinterpreted. "I've often been writing about women and children, particularly young girls who've been victimized by violence, and yet much of the critical response I received, especially from men, has been quite negative. They seem to think that I shouldn't write about the victims of violence, or I shouldn't write about violence."
Men -- who seemed to have been the principal reviewers of "Black Water" -- have no such complaints this time. The novel has received prominent and largely positive reviews, even some glowing ones. Richard Eder wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Oates "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."
A ballad is certainly what she was aiming at, one of those English or Scottish tunes of centuries past where a young girl is seduced and abandoned, sometimes even murdered, and her ghost comes back and laments.
The black water was splashing into her mouth, into her nostrils, there was no avoiding it, filling her lungs, and her heart was beating in quick erratic lurches laboring to supply oxygen to her fainting brain where she saw so vividly jagged needles rising like stalagmites -- what did it mean? Laughing ruefully to think how many kisses she'd had tasting of beer? wine? whisky? cigarettes? marijuana?
You love the life you've lived, there is no other.
"Black Water," which atypically for Oates has been selling well enough to flirt with the edge of the bestseller list, is thematically of a piece with the rest of her work: It's the song of the victim. The book is even dedicated to them, "for the Kellys," all these young women who are perhaps too idealistic and naive for their own good. They were plentiful in 1969 and no doubt now as well. And the Kellys lead inevitably to the selection of The Senator: handsome, famous, noble in his ideas if perhaps ignoble in his character. A Democrat, for sure.
"I can't quite imagine an intelligent woman looking up to and being romantically involved with a Republican," Oates says. "That sounds very disingenuous, but it would have to be somebody with real liberal ideals about reforming society. He'd be the kind of man who, after the Los Angeles riots, would be talking very idealistically about bringing the races together and putting money into the ghettos and finding jobs and so forth. So I was really led to somebody very much like Ted Kennedy because Kennedy himself had been a quintessential figure in his own way."
There we are: back at Kennedy again. Oates maintains she never thought people would ask about him or connect this book with Chappaquiddick. She thought the real-life incident had been relegated to the history books. "I'm a person who doesn't watch television and I don't read popular magazines," she explains. "I tend to be very literary, perhaps naive."
So literary, in fact, that on at least one occasion she's been transmuted into fiction herself. A man wrote a story called "How I Killed Joyce Carol Oates," and sent it to her. She thinks it may have even been published somewhere. The plot followed fairly closely from the title: There was a character named Joyce Carol Oates who gets horribly killed.
"Obviously, it was a man who didn't like me," Oates remarks with her customary evenness.
For once, Joyce Carol Oates was the victim. How did it feel?
"It wasn't very well written. I was sad that, if I had to be in a work of fiction, it couldn't be a better one."