Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review: Black Water Rising

Black Water Rising Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s the early 1980s, and Jay Porter is in a dark place. A decade before, he was an outspoken leader in the African-American student movement. Following a betrayal and a few years in school, he’s built a new life as a lawyer and an expectant father. He’s lost the passion of his younger years, and he’s taking sleazy, two-bit cases. He thinks he knows who he is, but a part of him feels he’s let down the idealism that launched him. Then, on a boat trip in the Houston Bayou, he comes across a woman running for her life, and he’s drawn into a tangled mystery that runs far deeper than he might have guessed.

This one unfolds slowly, but that’s all right because Jay is such a compelling character and because, as you can tell from the opening pages, Locke can write. She has an eye for the telling detail, and she has a sense of how to keep a story moving. She mixes backstory with new narrative, and she adds layers both to the story and to its significance. This is a mystery, yeah, and you never quite forget it’s genre, but it’s also social commentary. This is, along with a good story, a look at the era when the fight for racial equality confronted its own adolescence. The Stokely Carmichaels of the world took matters a good distance. Locke suggests it was the Jays of the world who picked it up.

This one reminds me a bit of Walter Mosley, and that’s a compliment. The downside of genre is that it gives you too clear a roadmap of what to expect. The upside is that, given such a roadmap, it’s possible for particularly strong writers to invest it with more than just the generic material. Locke is a strong writer – however much this might slow, it never loses momentum – and she makes this mystery about something, about how to narrate the seeming break a generation ago in the story of the fight for African-American self-representation.

There’s also a dash of Chinatown in this. That is, [SPOILER] as the late parts of the novels make clear, the Houston of this era was built on the false promises of the oil industry. We see here an early glimpse of the corruption that rose to the Presidency under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. This is a condemnation of an industry – and the men running it – that’s built on exploiting the public and hiding its excesses. Like the freeway and real estate magnates of the great movie, the oil men here are all about inventing a need that they can fill in their own way and multiply their fortunes.

I’ll add my sense to the overall excellence here that Locke never settles for the easy answer. One nice way that plays out is in the depth of her characters. Everyone we meet has his or her own agenda. The people Jay encounters have their own lives. His intersects theirs for a time, then he moves on. When he meets some of the striking longshoremen, they aren’t hapless victims waiting for a lawyer hero. They’re men with real hopes and real strengths who, for a time, find common cause with Jay.

There’s always subtlety to the story, even at the end. There’s no abrupt resolution; Jay simply takes on an environmental case he’s likely to lose. Instead, the resolution is more telling. It’s about a brave man who, having been frightened into submission by the betrayal of others, rediscovers his strength. It’s nice to think that his child, born at the end, has a role model more inspiring than the frightened figure from the opening pages.

I give myself a rule that genre, unless its inventing the form, can never be higher than four stars. That’s what I’m going with here, but I’d make it 4.5 if I had the choice.

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