History: Published in 1992. The story parallels the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, though Oates intended the book to represent the "almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated." The novel makes several references to both contemporary political and popular culture. Both Republican presidents George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan are castigated in the narrative
Plot: The book begins with Kelly Kelleher in a car that is plunging into mucky, swampy, "black water." We learn the events that led up to the accident in flashbacks as she is drowning: Kelly Kelleher attends a Fourth of July party hosted by her friend Buffy St. John; the irony in this is that it is completely out of character for Kelly to get herself into such a situation. Ray has invited "The Senator" about whom Kelly wrote her graduate thesis. He immediately is interested in her sexually; he pays attention solely to her as the party drags on, and they discuss their common political beliefs. He follows her to the beach where he kisses her, and then invites her to come to his hotel with him on the ferry. As she packs her bags, Buffy tries to convince her not to go or to go later but Kelly thinks that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance and goes with him, despite the fact that he has been drinking and that she is not entirely sure that she is "ready" for any sort of relationship.
The Senator is drunk and takes the "old" Ferry Road instead of the "new" one; he is driving recklessly and drives directly through a guardrail into a marsh. We find later that, had he made the turn, the car probably would have fallen into the water a short distance down the road at an old bridge. The car sinks passenger side down.
At this point, The Senator uses Kelly's body to jettison himself upwards,out of the driver's side door. She tries to hold on to him to pull herself free; he kicks her, leaving his shoe in her hand. Kelly, badly injured and delirious, continually imagines that he will come back to "save" her, and also that he has gone for help. She repeatedly imagines seeing him outside of the car, or that she feels the car shaking as he tries to get her out. She trusts The Senator until the very end of her life, certain that he will save her; it is possible that, because of this, she misses out on highly important lucid moments in which she could possibly save herself.
In reality, the senator has stumbled to an outdoor phone booth, carefully staying out of sight of passing cars, to call a friend/lawyer. He says that Kelly became emotional and pushed the wheel because she was drunk, thus causing the accident, and that she is already dead.
Meanwhile, Kelly is following an ever-shrinking bubble of air to the top of the car as is fills with water. She becomes more panicked and delirious As she grows closer and closer to death, her hallucinations become more vivid until she is imagining her parents, very old, watching her being pulled from the water in horror. She imagines herself as a child reaching up to be carried.
Review: Joyce Carol Oates allows us to know the victim in this story. In so doing, she provides a brilliant vision of how a culture has learned to associate political power with sex and to accept as one of the trappings of power the single thing most chronically wrong in the relations between men and women: that old, awful tendency to see the other as a sexual abstraction, a goal. As we live through the stages of this idealistic young woman's dying, we are given glimpses of her girlhood and flashes of memory that reveal the seduction; we see all the elements of personality and history and fate that have brought her to this time and place.
Opening Line: “The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then, with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger's side, rapidly sinking.
Closing Line: "As the black water filled her lungs, and she died."
Quotes: “Good sportsmanship. In some, it’s as hard to win gracefully as it is to lose.”
“Certainly he’d made speeches. He’d been eloquent… Capital punishment is unacceptable in a civilized society because the taking of any life for any purpose is loathsome, reducing society to the primitive level of the murdered himself.”