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Black Water

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The Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel from the author of the New York Times bestselling novel We Were the Mulvaneys

“Taut, powerfully imagined and beautifully written, Black Water ranks with the best of Joyce Carol Oates's already long list of distinguished achievements. It can be read in a single afternoon, but, like every good book, it continues to haunt us.”
- The New York Times

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The Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel from the author of the New York Times bestselling novel We Were the Mulvaneys

“Taut, powerfully imagined and beautifully written, Black Water ranks with the best of Joyce Carol Oates's already long list of distinguished achievements. It can be read in a single afternoon, but, like every good book, it continues to haunt us.”
- The New York Times

Joyce Carol Oates has taken a shocking story that has become an American myth and, from it, has created a novel of electrifying power and illumination. Kelly Kelleher is an idealistic, twenty-six-year-old “good girl” when she meets the Senator at a Fourth of July party. In a brilliantly woven narrative, we enter her past and her present, her mind and her body as she is fatally attracted to this older man, this hero, this soon-to-be-lover. Kelly becomes the very embodiment of the vulnerable, romantic dreams of bright and brave women, drawn to the power that certain men command—at a party that takes on the quality of a surreal nightmare; in a tragic car ride that we hope against hope will not end as we know it must end. One of the acknowledged masters of American fiction, Joyce Carol Oates has written a bold tour de force that parts the black water to reveal the profoundest depths of human truth.

The senator. The girl. The accident. In her most powerful novel to date, Oates creates an unforgettable allegory about power, morals, and ambition. The ghost of an American tragedy is resurrected in order to give voice to its silenced victim--an idealistic young woman too easily seduced by our fairy tales.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
``You would not choose to drown, to die . . . trapped together in a sinking car, with a stranger,'' a narrator observes about the fate of Kelly Kelleher, heroine of Oates's ( Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart ) gripping and hallucinatory novella. In a plot shocking for its blatant familiarity, a figure identified as The Senator tipsily drives a young woman away from a Fourth of July party, veers off a dock and plunges the car into dank water, where he deserts her and she drowns, a chastely wrapped condom still in her Laura Ashley purse. Brief chapters, some taut as prose poems, sink into Kelly's past (she had hoped to help him campaign for the presidency) and then surge forward. Ebbing and rising like the engulfing waters, the narrative, too, swallows her in its finale. Returning to the theme of Death and the Maiden (the picture hangs on a wall in American Appetites , and the phrase was the original title of her classic short story ``Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?''), Oates here extracts a deeper, more terrible meaning. Kelly feels ``chosen,'' having long ago fallen under the sway of Politics and Eros as incarnated by the treacherous Senator, on whom she based her college honors thesis. The author chillingly augments her scrutiny of the tainted American official by incorporating statements about capital punishment by current legalists. Oates is at the top of her stunning form. 50,000 first printing; BOMC selection; author tour. (May)
Library Journal
It all began when Kelly Kelleher was introduced to The Senator, a man she had wanted to meet since selecting him as the topic of her senior honors thesis. Charmed and infatuated, Kelly eagerly accepts his invitation to leave the island party where they've met and ride back to Boothbay Harbor together on the late night ferry. Those who remember Chappaquiddick can predict Kelly's ultimate fate, but certainly not the horrors she must have suffered strapped to the seat of a car that would become an aqueous death chamber. Immense courage shines through the tangled streams of her thoughts, memories, and hallucinations. As witnesses to her plight, we can only keep vigil as she drifts in and out of consciousness, waiting for the reprieve that surely must be hers. Oates brilliantly redefines the meanings of guilt and innocence, vengeance and reward in this thought-provoking allegory of our life and times. Highly recommended for all fiction collections. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/92.-- Janet W. Reit, Univ. of Vermont Lib., Burlington
School Library Journal
YA-- ``She was the one he had chosen.'' This is Kelly Kelleher's thought as she leaves the party with a senator, as much a symbol of her desire to change her life as it is the fulfillment of a romantic dream. She's a young woman struggling to assert herself, but this rash move ultimately ends in tragedy. Oates makes readers feel that they are along for the very frightening ride in the car with Kelly and her senator in this shocking, all-too-familiar story. It's fast paced, almost as if to compel readers to keep up with the speeding car. Although brief, the book develops Kelly's character so well that the loss of such a young and promising life is deeply felt. The man sharing the last moments of her life is known only as ``The Senator'' throughout. Even for readers unaware of the true incident that was catalyst for this story, the novel stands strongly on its own . -- Carolyn Koehler, Richard Byrd Library, Fairfax County, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Oates's latest is an impassioned re-creation of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick—with names withheld and the date moved to the current, post-Reagan era. Her name is Elizabeth Kelleher, called "Kelly" by her friends; her age, 26 and eight months; occupation, reporter for the liberal Citizen's Inquiry, whose editor once worked on the Bobby Kennedy campaign. Pretty, tentative Kelly attends casually and without expectations the Fourth of July get-together hosted by her best friend, Buffy St. John, on Grayling Island—little realizing that "the Senator"—charismatic liberal politician, contender for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, and subject of her senior thesis at Brown—will drop in for a few drinks and a game or two of tennis. The Senator, red-eyed, heavy, and in his late 50s, looks the political warhorse he is, but it's his appetite for debate, politics, and life itself that intrigues the young journalist—he is, after all, her hero. She allows him to lead her on a walk along the beach, to kiss her, to suggest that they catch the ferry off the island and have dinner at his hotel. She is the one, the one he's chosen, Kelly tells herself, frightened though she is as the Senator speeds down a dark, unpaved road toward the ferry, sloshing a fresh gin-and-tonic on her dress. But when his car flips off the road and into the black, polluted Indian River, Kelly gradually realizes that her assumption is false: she isn't chosen, at least not for rescue—and her brief life, with its half- understood longings, fears, and dreams, is over almost before it has begun. One may question whether yet another fictional account, no matter how brief and evocative, ofthis infamous accident is really worthwhile—though Oates fans (and there are many) won't be disappointed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452269866
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/1/1993
  • Series: Contemporary Fiction, Plume Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 187,861
  • Age range: 18 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.43 (w) x 8.07 (h) x 0.42 (d)

Meet the Author

In addition to many prize-winning and bestselling novels, including We Were the Mulvaneys, Black Water, and Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart (available in Plume editions), Joyce Carol Oates is the author of a number of works of gothic fiction including Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (Plume), a 1995 World Fantasy Award nominee; and Zombie (Plume), winner of the 1996 Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel, awarded by the Horror Writers' Association. In 1994, Oates received the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award in Horror Fiction. She is the editor of American Gothic Tales and her latest novel is Broke Heart Blues (Dutton). She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world. She has often used her supreme narrative skills to examine the dark side of middle-class Americana, and her oeuvre includes some of the finest examples of modern essays, plays, criticism, and fiction from a vast array of genres. She is still publishing with a speed and consistency of quality nearly unheard of in contemporary literature.

A born storyteller, Oates has been spinning yarns since she was a little girl too young to even write. Instead, she would communicate her stories through drawings and paintings. When she received her very first typewriter at the age of 14, her creative floodgates opened with a torrent. She says she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college -- a prolificacy that has continued unabated throughout a professional career that began in 1963 with her first short story collection, By the North Gate.

Oates's breakthrough occurred in 1969 with the publication of them, a National Book Award winner that established her as a force to be reckoned with. Since that auspicious beginning, she has been nominated for nearly every major literary honor -- from the PEN/Faulkner Award to the Pulitzer Prize -- and her fiction turns up with regularity on The New York Times annual list of Notable Books.

On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year!). And although her fiction often exposes the darker side of America's brightest facades – familial unrest, sexual violence, the death of innocence – she has also made successful forays into Gothic novels, suspense, fantasy, and children's literature. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map."

Where she finds the time for it no one knows, but Oates manages to combine her ambitious, prolific writing career with teaching: first at the University of Windsor in Canada, then (from 1978 on), at Princeton University in New Jersey. For all her success and fame, her daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast.

Good To Know

When not writing, Oates likes to take in a fight. "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost," she says in highbrow fashion of the lowbrow sport.

Oates's Black Water, which is a thinly veiled account of Ted Kennedy's car crash in Chappaquiddick, was produced as an opera in the 1990s.

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey selected Oates's novel We Were the Mulvaneys for her Book Club.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rosamond Smith
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 16, 1938
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lockport, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 19, 2013

    If you don't understand why Joyce Carol Oates is a literary pill

    If you don't understand why Joyce Carol Oates is a literary pillar of our times, then you obviously have not read "Black Water." Go, right now, run to your computer, sink your literature-impoverished fingertips into its keys. Now! Before it's too late! If you don't, then you only have yourself to blame, and, the haggard, wrinkled figures that you see in your final thoughts, just may be attending angels in disguise.

    There are great books and there are legendary books.

    The poetry of the inner world. If there is any one feature only great books lack, it is this one. The legendary book flows like black water, a rising river wrought of soul-stained ink, overflowing, flooding, off the pages and into your veins, and then all through your body, endowing your mind with a new set of eyes, your heart with fluttering wings, your soul with tangoing poetry, all riding the raging black river, seeking to flood your literary life with dizzying oxygen. Black Water.

    We are seized and yanked into the flood of a young woman's mind in the throes of an automobile accident, unnecessary, unexpected as death, her frailty, her fragility, her insecure passions, her desperate need for love and acceptance, her sensuality, her incredulity, her piteous hope, her clinging, final, muddy thoughts, her senseless tragedy, her whirling psyche, her dreams, her barrage of caressing memory, her ebullience of feeling, her tenacious stubborn final logic. Black Water.

    Joyce Carol Oates gives us a mosaic, vivid vision, a luxuriant, rare glimpse into what it was like to be Kelly Kelleher in a desperate last flickering moment of life, to be swallowed by the black water of well-disguised usury, to feel one's mind cling to the final bastions of life and hope and womanly need. Black Water.

    Why don't you see for yourself what a legendary author does with language. Read it or be forever impoverished.

    Yours in literature,
    Comment Comment | Permalink

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2008


    In my opinion, Black Water is a novel about inevitability and doom. With each page, the atmosphere gets increasingly overwhelming, and moving. Beautifully written, JCO's novel depicts with vivid imagery and easy-going stream-of-consciousness the thoughts and memories of a young woman.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2007


    I completly disagree with many of the other reviews. JCO comes back to the same scene, adding more details each time, to make a point. Most of the things that happen to kelly during that scene are symbolic to her life, society, and what it was to be a women at the time. Though this novel is short, JCO uses her symbolic messages to help the reader understand the characters more. I would only sudjest this book if you are willing to look deeper within the text to find meaning and substance. Otherwise pick up a gossip girl, there is rarley any symbolism there, and is much easier to fidjure out the characters there than in a JCO novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2007

    The Worst Book Ever!

    I really enjoyed 'We were the mulvaneys' by JCO, but this book was by far the worst book I have ever read. The 150 ish pages were complete torture during the 24 hour period it took me to read it. I am not sure where she was going with this story, but it just said the same thing over and over and over and over and over again!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2004

    Not worth the time!!

    Repetition, and nothing more. This story could have been told in a few pages and in a much better way. Don't waste your time.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2003

    Understand the creativity: lost in repetition

    Oates creatively tries to bring the character's angst by returning to the scene again and again, but mistakedly repeats things over and over to the point of boredom. I couldn't wait to put this book down because I thought the organization was lacking in power. I think Oates was trying for 'power' by continually coming back to the drowning, but she loses the impact of this historic event by repeating herself rather than adding more to each of the victim's reminiscence. I became bored with it before reaching even the middle of the book. My mom let me in on the historical connection, otherwise, I would have put the book down much earlier, and I always finish a book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2003

    Imagine being trapped. . .

    JCO brilliantly captures the frantic thoughts that must run through the mind of someone losing the battle against time. Fast-paced and emotional...well worth the read

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2002

    Black Water

    I thought this book was kind-of pointless unless that is you want to read the same thing over and over again. The way the book was written did not please my taste although Oats is a great author.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2001


    I read this book for the first time when I was in the sixth grade. I was impressed by the author's almost incoherent style as it helps the reader to appreciate the state of mind of the main character. I was also intrigued by the descriptions of capital punishment. They are quite appropriate as Kelly is 'sentenced' to a horrific death by a well known politician. At the time, I considered this to be one of the best books I had ever read and hurried to tell my mother about it. Only then, did I learnd the real life tragedy that inspired the book. Nine years later, I still search for that book at every bookstore, every library. I've never forgotten it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2000

    Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates

    The book was moderatley good, but not worth reading again. The way it's written is kind of strange, but that makes it better.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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