Black Water Rising


A DISTANT MEMORY

In Attica Locke's Black Water Rising, the surprises extend beyond suspense

By D. Scot Miller

For San San Francisco Bay Guardian

Wednesday June 3, 2009

REVIEW I was cautious when I got the galley for Attica Locke's first novel Black Water Rising (Harper, 448 pages, $25.99). I'd been intrigued before by beguiling plots of intrigue and suspense, only to find myself in the middle of a tepid affair with no way out except for closing the damn thing and chalking it up to yet another life lesson. All the warning signs were there.

The book's protagonist, Jay Porter, is an attorney operating out of a Houston strip mall in 1981. His only client is a shady prostitute, who may or may not pay him. His wife, Bernie, is pregnant and he's barely making ends meet to feed them, much less the baby who's on the way. Though not happy with his mediocre existence, he's content enough with his lot to be strong-willed and determined to make it.

Jay has a terrible secret, of course, that threatens to tear the world he has meticulously built asunder. And one fateful night, something happens that sets the unraveling in motion. He saves a mysterious woman's life and places himself in the middle of a plot rife with sex, backroom deals, and dirty cash that will determine his fate and that of Houston, Texas, and eventually, the world!

"Easy, big fella. Easy," I told myself. "You've been hurt before." I saw the signs, as much as any reader would. I saw a Grisham story. I saw a Leonard tale. I knew I was being seduced, but I couldn't put the book down. The first chapters hooked me like classic mid-list pulp — a phenomenon I miss like pay phones — and it took a minute to realize what Attica Locke was doing.

It wouldn't be a spoiler to tell Jay Porter's secret. He did time for running guns during the Black Power movement. This was during the days of J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program, when black dissidents' phones were tapped, dossiers were amassed, and organizations were infiltrated. Jay Porter the strip mall lawyer has a legitimate cause to be paranoid. This kind of justified paranoia plagues many of the resisters who managed to survive the bloodbaths of the 1960s and 1970s social movements. Lensed through Porter's claustrophobia, grandiosity, and self-deprecation, demons lurk in every dark corner. As the plot unfolds, the first thing that disappears from view is a tangible reality, one free from dark fantasy and delusion. Jay Porter may be nuts. Then again, maybe not.

Locke, a veteran screenwriter, has an almost supernatural understanding of pacing. This aids her well in storytelling, but even more so in figuring out where to work her magic. Her early 1980s Houston is a city on the verge of Texas-sized change. Porter is asked by his preacher father-in-law to work with the dockworkers union that meets in his church. The black dockworkers are being paid less than the white workers who do the same job. A split in the union along race lines is imminent. A battle between the warring workers breaks out after a young man is beaten. A greater impetus is revealed: the arrival of containers. These containers, it is threatened, will be used on barge, train, and truck, nearly rendering dockworkers obsolete. Jay Porter is asked to speak to the mayor — a "friend" from his revolutionary past — on behalf of the workers. Simultaneously he tries to uncover the identity of the mysterious woman he saved.

This is the one drawback in an otherwise stellar debut. Jay Porter has too much going on. So much that suspension of belief is pulled to the breaking point. So much that many characters who are vital to the plot get unbelievably overlooked. When the Porters' home is burglarized, for example, Jay leaves his pregnant wife in the house to pursue a lead on one of his cases. When a tough offers Porter money to not pursue another lead, he does it anyway — out of, what, morbid curiosity? The mayor of Houston and many of the other characters are so full, rich, and singular that it is baffling and frustrating when someone as essential as Bernie becomes a bit player in Jay's solipsistic pursuit. Is Jay Porter crazy, or just an asshole?

Black Water Rising reads like a hard-boiled thriller, but the real trick resides in Locke's ability to personalize an overlooked part of American history and show how far-reaching, how entrenched, it is in today's social, political, and cultural fabric. From running the voodoo down on the Weather Underground to using 1980s Houston as a backdrop, she wraps a People's History of America in a digestible, entertaining package. There are whiffs of Chinatown and White Butterfly, sure, but Locke's attention to the details between the action makes the novel, and turns every reader into an oracle.

As Jay solves this book's mysteries, we see pre-Dubya America getting dubbed. We see the sprawl that is yet to be. We see the unions breaking, the factories shutting down, the diners, bars, and cafes closing. We see the Black Water Rising. I may not want to see too much more of Jay Porter, but I better see more of Attica Locke.