Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I do in the same situation?’ That sort of novel can engage the reader on a few levels, and can be the stuff of interesting conversation and reflection. That’s the sort of novel Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.
It’s 1981, and Jay Porter is a low-rent Houston-area lawyer with a not-exactly-stellar clientele. His goal is to get some good cases and move up, as the saying goes. One evening, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out on a bayou cruise for her birthday. While they’re on the water, they hear a woman’s scream for help and the sound of gun blasts.
Porter’s first instinct is to try to help, while Bernie wants to leave it all alone and get out. They agree to go back to the boat landing and when they’re safe, call the police. But before they can do that, a young woman falls into the bayou not far from their boat. They rescue the woman, who refuses to say much about herself. She does consent to be taken to the local police station though, and then insists on being left there, saying she’ll be all right.
The next day, there’s news of a fatal shooting in the same area where the Porters found the young woman the night before. For several reasons, Porter doesn’t want to get involved in this case and tell the police what he knows. The most important reason is that he’s had some bad experiences with police in the past, especially during his college days, when he was involved in the Civil Rights and, briefly, the Black Power movement.
‘Free advice he gives to any prospective client who walks through the door: don’t volunteer anything to a cop that he didn’t ask for in the first place.’
And he’s always lived by that rule.
In the meantime, Porter’s father-in-law asks him for help. The Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL), a Black union, is asking for pay and other parity with the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), which is White. The unions are in the process of integrating, but it hasn’t happened yet. A group of ILA thugs have beat up a young man Darren Hayworth, who’s in the BoL, and unless those responsible are caught and punished, the entire group of longshoremen will be at a huge disadvantage during a strike they’re planning. It’s no secret that Porter knows Mayor Cynthia Maddox, and the BoL want him to persuade her to use her influence to get justice for the young man who was attacked. For Porter, this will be difficult. He has a past with the mayor that’s painful for both of them. But he agrees to at least speak to her.
Against his better judgement, Porter finds himself being drawn into both the shooting case and the attack. As he learns more, he finds that this trail leads to the corrupt top of the corporate ladder, and that there are some very powerful people who wouldn’t think twice about killing him.
One of the elements in this novel is the issue of race. There are still scars from the Civil Rights movement, and Porter’s very much aware that he’s a Black man in what is still a White man’s world. He’s got clients of both races, and he’s working to move up the social ladder, but he’s keenly aware of the gulf between the races.
Race is also discussed as the two unions try to work together on the strike plans. One of the issues they face is whether race should figure into hiring and promoting. Should the longshoremen work proactively to ensure that Blacks are promoted to positions of authority? Is that fair to Whites who may have seniority? If it’s not fair, then what should the group do to meet the BoL’s demand for equality of pay and opportunity?
Race has also impacted Porter’s mindset in another way. We learn that he was a part of the late-1960s student unrest and Civil Rights movement, and also associated with Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Touré and the Black Power movement. But a betrayal got him an arrest, a felony record, and a deep sense of disillusionment. So it’s very logical that he hesitates to stick his neck out, as the saying goes, and let the police know what he saw on the night of the murder.
Throughout the novel, Porter is faced with several decisions, and all of them invite the reader to ask, ‘What might I do?’ Should he report what he saw, given the very real possibility that he’ll be suspected of murder (he was on the scene that night)? Should he stay out of the whole thing and look after the safety of his wife and his unborn child? How far should he go in pursuing the case? Even if he does catch the real culprit, it may be a very Pyrrhic victory. Jay Porter is a complex person, and these are not easy decisions.
Although he is complicated, and has his share of ‘baggage from the past,’ Porter isn’t a stereotypical dysfunctional sleuth. He has a happy marriage and a bond with his wife’s family. He’s excited about being a father, too. And he does what he needs to do professionally. The novel doesn’t focus on courtroom procedure or legal precedent, but it’s clear that although he’s no longer idealistic about justice, Porter can handle himself as an attorney.
The other major characters in the novel have pasts and in several cases, something to hide. So part of the challenge for Porter is to determine which of them can be trusted. It’s a particular challenge for him, since he’s been betrayed before. The suspense in this story is built in part through Porter’s slow discovery of the roles some of the characters have played in the murder and the larger scandal behind it.
Several of those characters have also made choices that the reader is invited to ponder and question. To give just one example, Maddox faces a lot of pressure from business leaders and others to do whatever is needed to stop the impending strike; and she wants Porter’s help in doing so. Is it right for her to position herself against the strike, knowing that it may mean an unequal pay and hiring policy? What about the loss of business and reputation if Houston has to deal with a major strike? These are not easy choices, and Locke doesn’t pretend that they are.
The narrative moves between the 1981 murder and strike plans, in which the present tense is used, and Porter’s days in the student movements, in which the past tense is used. Readers who prefer one story told in one timeline will notice this. That said though, the story thread from Porter’s past explains a great deal about his relationships with some of the other characters in the novel. It also gives insight into his character.
The novel takes place in oil-rich southeast Texas in 1981, and the culture of that place and time are clearly depicted. I can say without spoiling the story that the issues that come up in this story make logical sense given that context.
Black Water Rising is the story of a small-time lawyer who’s drawn into a much bigger case than he could have imagined. It’s also a sociocultural perspective on a particular Texas community during the early 1980s. It’s also a look at disillusionment, the attempt to ‘get the fire back,’ and the very difficult set of decisions that come up when one does that. But what’s your view? Have you read Black Water Rising? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlighti
Monday 4 May/Tuesday 5 May – The Bat – Jo Nesbø
Monday 11 May/Tuesday 12 May – Dancing to ‘Almendra’ – Mayra Montero
Monday 18 May/Tuesday 19 May – The Devil’s Making – Seán Haldane
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Serpent's Tail)
Feted by wondrous reviews and on any number of award shortlists (including the Edgar and the Orange prize), I was predisposed to like this first novel about a lawyer in 1980s Houston, Texas. The book opens promisingly when Jay Porter and his heavily pregnant wife Bernie enjoy a night-time boat ride on a bayou, Jay’s surprise birthday present to Bernie. Their romantic evening is rudely interrupted by the sound of a woman screaming for help somewhere onshore. Then, shots ring out and they hear something falling into the water. Jay dives in and discovers that what has fallen, or been thrown, into the river is a woman – he manages to get her onto the boat. She is barely able to speak, but after taking a shower she is well enough for Jay to drive her to the nearest police station, where he leaves her, unwilling to get further involved.
These events, and the rest of the novel, are told from Jay’s perspective and in the present tense, which is not a style I like, in general. It rapidly becomes apparent that Jay, a lawyer, is somewhat untrusting of authorities verging on the paranoid – he’s in the past been on trial for a crime he didn’t (we assume) commit, and regards Bernie and his unborn child as his route to salvation. As the novel continues, we learn a lot more about Jay’s past in flashback as the story centering on the mysterious woman unfolds.
Jay never knew his own father, who died at the age of 21 after an unprovoked beating by white men, before Jay was born. When Jay was a student in the late 1960s, he was part of a political activist movement, campainging against segregation in the American South. He soon he realises that he’s more interested in working to improve the inequities of globalisation than in fighting for Black Power, unlike most of his fellow students. Other radical student groups at the university in those heady times were campaigning for different causes, notably against the Vietnam war. As well as much infighting between these factions, many of them have been infiltrated by the government. Eventually, Jay pays the price of his political persuasion and, he assumes, his colour, when he is unfairly accused of attacking a fellow student and betrayed by the one person he has come to trust.
Returning to the present, Jay is asked by his father in law, the local church minister, to represent a young man who has been beaten up. The police aren’t interested, even though the boy says he can identify the men who attacked him. With reluctance, Jay contacts Houston’s mayor, someone with whom he shares some secrets, to obtain help in the boy’s case. The case gets mixed up in massive industrial unrest among the dockers and longshoremen – a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms. In an echo of the disputes among the student factions of Jay’s memory, some unions are pushing for a strike; others are concerned that such action would cause them to lose their jobs via automation or cheap immigrant labour; others are more interested in the unfair treatment, such as career progression, meted out to black workers compared with white. For his part, Jay attempts to keep out of all this politics for the sake of his family, and confine himself to the case he’s agreed to take because of his past obligations.
There are many more themes and storylines in this novel, and this in itself is part of the problem, for me. None of them really delivers, and several are not developed– political machinations, the oil industry and its greed, the case of the missing woman and the man who persistently follows Jay, either bribing or threatening him – none of it adds up into a sufficiently coherent or consistent whole. Although, as we learn more about his past, it is easy to sympathise with Jay, he isn’t a very interesting person. Bernie, his wife, is unformed and bland. The only person in this long novel who leaps off the page is the mayor, whose life and career is most intriguing, and about whom I’d like to know more. The crime plot is meandering at best and unconvincing at worst – the number of times Jay interviews someone, or is followed by someone, or is treated inconsistently by people who follow, bribe or attack him, is neither suspenseful nor logical. The same is true of the final revelation of what is at the heart of many of these goings-on – I was not convinced, nor was I persuaded that what had gone before fitted with the set-up and its disparate associated events.
The author seems most at home in describing political activism – 1960s student unrest, and the struggles for equality of the 1980s are vividly depicted. This impression is reinforced by her postscript to the book, in which she writes that she was named after the Attica prison riots of 1971, and about her own parents’ stories as activists.
While reading this (too long) novel about a lawyer seeking justice and domestic peace in the deep south, I was regularly reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird, and at the start I wondered if Black Water Rising was going to turn out to be an equivalent book for its generation. The answer is no (but it’s interesting that the author’s name is a female version of the main character in that novel, lawyer Atticus Finch) – even so, Black Water Rising is an ambitious book. It is over-written and attempts too many themes, but as it is a debut novel I hope that the author, who is a talented writer, will have got a lot out of her system and will be able to focus and deliver more in her next book.
Read reviews of this book at The Guardian, Material Witness, Wordsmithonia, and many other places.