Oil and murder mix in a Texan bayou --
By: JOHN O'CONNELL --
Jan 08 2010 --
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
Some novels never quite recover from the brilliance of their opening chapters. Screenwriter Attica Locke's debut is one of them, but it's still a powerful and skilfully constructed conspiracy thriller -- Chinatown without the air of despairing fatalism.
We're in Houston, Texas, in 1981, not long after Ronald Reagan's installation in the White House. Jay Porter is a struggling lawyer with a strip-mall practice that mostly handles minor personal injury claims. Short on cash, but determined to mark his pregnant wife Bernie's birthday memorably, he hires a rickety old barge belonging to the cousin of one of his clients and takes her on a moonlit cruise along Houston's Buffalo Bayou.
All is calm until suddenly they hear a woman's scream, then gunshots, then the splash of a body hitting water. Instinctively, Jay dives into the murky river and emerges clutching a distressed but alive white woman whose refusal to tell him anything about what has happened to her he attributes -- mistakenly -- to her fear of his blackness.
Actually, her reticence echoes Jay's reluctance to get involved. He's only too familiar with "the long, creative arm of Southern law enforcement": in his youth he was a Black Power activist who narrowly avoided being imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy to murder.
So he and Bernie drive the woman to the nearest police station and leave her at the door. For anyone else that would be the end of it. But when Jay learns that a man was indeed killed near the bayou that night, he feels compelled to dig deeper. He even returns to the scene of the crime, as if he himself had committed it.
The plot unfolds against a backdrop of rising oil prices and union unrest. Houston's black longshoremen are threatening to strike and Jay's father-in-law, an influential minister, wants him to represent a young man who claims he was beaten up by a port official. Jay isn't sure and Locke makes us feel the force of his uncertainty, his reservations about the value of intervening even when he knows it's the right thing to do.
He's a tortured soul with a "sensitive, almost exquisite sense of the world as black and white", as any African American would be who had grown up in a place called Nigton -- a shameful contraction that speaks for itself -- and heard repeatedly as a child the story of how his father died when a white hospital refused to treat him after he had been kicked in the head by rednecks.
The black water of the title is, of course, oil and it's no surprise when Jay's investigations link the murder to the corrupt practices of Big Petroleum. Locke has an extraordinary gift for reinvigorating tired thriller conventions. The ransacked apartment; the sinister man who shadows the hero and warns him at regular intervals to forget his quarry and go back to his family; the eccentric journalist who has to be persuaded to help the hero out with crucial information -- all are present and correct, but the writing is so attentive to depth as well as surface, and to the swampy atmosphere of a city where everyone has his air conditioning ramped up to the max, that we don't care.
Locke lingers on the port strike, but then it is the catalyst for Jay's political reawakening. Where she's less successful is in her depiction of Houston's mayor, a white woman Jay knew (and loved) when she was a student drawn to black politics. A cynical exemplar of radical chic, Cynthia Maddox failed to support Jay when he stood trial, then disappeared, resurfacing years later as a petite powerhouse of Reaganism. She's a fascinating type but no more than that and it's hard to understand what Jay would have seen in her, or why she continues to exert such a hold on him.
The ending lacks the punch of the beginning, but leaves plenty of room for a sequel. Jay is a compelling character who coheres despite his contradictions. It would be a pleasure to meet him again.-- © Guardian News & Media 2009
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Oil and murder mix in a Texan bayou (Attica Locke)
From Guardian News & Media (South Africa) --