In The Spotlight: Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising

>In The Spotlight: Walter Mosley's A Red DeathHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I do in the same situation?’ That sort of novel can engage the reader on a few levels, and can be the stuff of interesting conversation and reflection. That’s the sort of novel Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.

It’s 1981, and Jay Porter is a low-rent Houston-area lawyer with a not-exactly-stellar clientele. His goal is to get some good cases and move up, as the saying goes. One evening, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out on a bayou cruise for her birthday. While they’re on the water, they hear a woman’s scream for help and the sound of gun blasts.

Porter’s first instinct is to try to help, while Bernie wants to leave it all alone and get out. They agree to go back to the boat landing and when they’re safe, call the police. But before they can do that, a young woman falls into the bayou not far from their boat. They rescue the woman, who refuses to say much about herself. She does consent to be taken to the local police station though, and then insists on being left there, saying she’ll be all right.

The next day, there’s news of a fatal shooting in the same area where the Porters found the young woman the night before. For several reasons, Porter doesn’t want to get involved in this case and tell the police what he knows. The most important reason is that he’s had some bad experiences with police in the past, especially during his college days, when he was involved in the Civil Rights and, briefly, the Black Power movement.

‘Free advice he gives to any prospective client who walks through the door: don’t volunteer anything to a cop that he didn’t ask for in the first place.’

And he’s always lived by that rule.

In the meantime, Porter’s father-in-law asks him for help. The Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL), a Black union, is asking for pay and other parity with the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), which is White. The unions are in the process of integrating, but it hasn’t happened yet. A group of ILA thugs have beat up a young man Darren Hayworth, who’s in the BoL, and unless those responsible are caught and punished, the entire group of longshoremen will be at a huge disadvantage during a strike they’re planning.  It’s no secret that Porter knows Mayor Cynthia Maddox, and the BoL want him to persuade her to use her influence to get justice for the young man who was attacked. For Porter, this will be difficult. He has a past with the mayor that’s painful for both of them. But he agrees to at least speak to her.

Against his better judgement, Porter finds himself being drawn into both the shooting case and the attack. As he learns more, he finds that this trail leads to the corrupt top of the corporate ladder, and that there are some very powerful people who wouldn’t think twice about killing him.

One of the elements in this novel is the issue of race. There are still scars from the Civil Rights movement, and Porter’s very much aware that he’s a Black man in what is still a White man’s world. He’s got clients of both races, and he’s working to move up the social ladder, but he’s keenly aware of the gulf between the races.

Race is also discussed as the two unions try to work together on the strike plans. One of the issues they face is whether race should figure into hiring and promoting. Should the longshoremen work proactively to ensure that Blacks are promoted to positions of authority? Is that fair to Whites who may have seniority? If it’s not fair, then what should the group do to meet the BoL’s demand for equality of pay and opportunity?

Race has also impacted Porter’s mindset in another way. We learn that he was a part of the late-1960s student unrest and Civil Rights movement, and also associated with Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Touré and the Black Power movement. But a betrayal got him an arrest, a felony record, and a deep sense of disillusionment. So it’s very logical that he hesitates to stick his neck out, as the saying goes, and let the police know what he saw on the night of the murder.

Throughout the novel, Porter is faced with several decisions, and all of them invite the reader to ask, ‘What might I do?’ Should he report what he saw, given the very real possibility that he’ll be suspected of murder (he was on the scene that night)? Should he stay out of the whole thing and look after the safety of his wife and his unborn child? How far should he go in pursuing the case? Even if he does catch the real culprit, it may be a very Pyrrhic victory. Jay Porter is a complex person, and these are not easy decisions.

Although he is complicated, and has his share of ‘baggage from the past,’ Porter isn’t a stereotypical dysfunctional sleuth. He has a happy marriage and a bond with his wife’s family. He’s excited about being a father, too. And he does what he needs to do professionally. The novel doesn’t focus on courtroom procedure or legal precedent, but it’s clear that although he’s no longer idealistic about justice, Porter can handle himself as an attorney.

The other major characters in the novel have pasts and in several cases, something to hide. So part of the challenge for Porter is to determine which of them can be trusted. It’s a particular challenge for him, since he’s been betrayed before. The suspense in this story is built in part through Porter’s slow discovery of the roles some of the characters have played in the murder and the larger scandal behind it.

Several of those characters have also made choices that the reader is invited to ponder and question. To give just one example, Maddox faces a lot of pressure from business leaders and others to do whatever is needed to stop the impending strike; and she wants Porter’s help in doing so. Is it right for her to position herself against the strike, knowing that it may mean an unequal pay and hiring policy? What about the loss of business and reputation if Houston has to deal with a major strike? These are not easy choices, and Locke doesn’t pretend that they are.

The narrative moves between the 1981 murder and strike plans, in which the present tense is used, and Porter’s days in the student movements, in which the past tense is used. Readers who prefer one story told in one timeline will notice this. That said though, the story thread from Porter’s past explains a great deal about his relationships with some of the other characters in the novel. It also gives insight into his character.

The novel takes place in oil-rich southeast Texas in 1981, and the culture of that place and time are clearly depicted. I can say without spoiling the story that the issues that come up in this story make logical sense given that context.

Black Water Rising is the story of a small-time lawyer who’s drawn into a much bigger case than he could have imagined. It’s also a sociocultural perspective on a particular Texas community during the early 1980s. It’s also a look at disillusionment, the attempt to ‘get the fire back,’ and the very difficult set of decisions that come up when one does that. But what’s your view? Have you read Black Water Rising? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlighti

Monday 4 May/Tuesday 5 May – The Bat – Jo Nesbø

Monday 11 May/Tuesday 12 May – Dancing to ‘Almendra’ – Mayra Montero

Monday 18 May/Tuesday 19 May – The Devil’s Making – Seán Haldane


Filed under Attica Locke, Black Water Rising

30 responses to “In The Spotlight: Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising

  1. So glad you are profiling this – I think Attica Locke is a very intelligent and politically engaged writer, and this is a complex, very rich debut novel. I think Pleasantville is even better, being the work of an author who is really hitting her stride in her third novel.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned Pleasantville, Marina Sofia. Folks, I recommend both books – highly – but please be sure to read Black Water Rising first. There’s a major spoiler in Pleasantville to one important plot thread in Black Water Rising.
      As to Locke, I agree that she’s intelligent and engaged, and she has written some thoughtful, complex, engaging novels. Not a light, quick read, but well worth it, I think

  2. I’ve read quite a lot of good things about this book and what you reveal in this post makes me understand why. It is fascinating how the background to Porter has a bearing on the choices he made.

    • I think so too, Cleo. And the story shows some direct connections between that past and some of the choices Porter is faced with as the story goes on. I do recommend this novel.

  3. This is one I meant to read when it came out and somehow it dropped off my radar, so thanks for the reminder. I did read her second book, The Cutting Season, and although I felt it was flawed in some ways, I enjoyed her writing style and found much of what she had to say on the subject of the after-effects of slavery thought-provoking. Especially how she highlighted the ‘new slavery’ of illegal immigrants – an issue we have here in the UK too.

    • I thought she handled that issue effectively too, FictionFan. I think you’d really like both Black Water Rising and its follow-up Pleasantville (Locke’s third novel). As I mentioned in my comment to Marina Sofia, I recommend highly that you read this one before reading Pleasantville. But that said, both are in my opinion very much worth the reading.

  4. This sounds a fascinating and worthwhile read Margot. It’s immediately going on my tbr list.

    • I really think it’s a good ‘un, Rebecca. Lots to think about and some solid, rich characters, too. And what I like about it too is that, while there is violence in the novel, Locke doesn’t dwell on it, nor does she glorify it at all.

  5. This one sounds very interesting and I was not familiar with the author at all. However, the present tense writing does put me off. I will think about it.

    • Tracy – There certainly seems to be a trend towards writing in the present tense. It’s not my thing, to be honest, ‘though I’ve read some books where it’s handled quite well. I recommend the book, but yes, it does use that present tense.

  6. this is an author I’ve been meaning to read, and have been hearing about her a lot with Pleasantville just out – so very useful to know I should read this one first: thanks Margot.

  7. Kathy D.

    It’s not a gruesome read by any means, given what’s being sold right now.
    I liked this book, but the disillusionment not so much, although I get it. There is a new Civil Rights Movement going on right now, much needed.
    I have not read The Cutting Room and am glad that there is a second Jay Porter book out now. I chime in on the suggestion to read Black Water Rising First.
    And as a proponent of affirmative action and diversity I’d say it’s really way past due for African Americans and other people of color to have their due in education and jobs. Look at statistics on all of this: employment, salaries, education, who’s in prison. The New York Times ran analysis last week and found that 1.5 million Black men are just missing from society. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the lower pay of Black women and men compared to whites and they’re in the highest unemployment categories. There is still discrimination in jobs, housing, and more, even in the entertainment business with movies and so on.
    I can’t wait to read Pleasantville though I’m still not sure about The Cutting Season.

    • There is still a long way to go, Kathy, to get to equity/parity. No doubt about that at all. And it’s interesting to see how Locke handles those issues in this novel and in Pleasantville. As you say, the violence in this novel isn’t gruesome at all, considering what else is sold these days; and, in my opinion, it fits in logically with the plot. I hope you’ll get the chance to read Pleasantveille.

  8. Always attracted to a story where the protagonist has a happy home life – how did it become so rare these days? Thanks Margot 🙂

    • Ah, you ask a very good question, Sergio! There are certainly plenty of dysfunctional sleuths out there – have been for a long time. But I agree with you that many, many of today’s sleuths do not have good home lives. One possibility is that this reflects the desire to ‘flesh out’ the character and make her or him more ‘human’ (we all, after all, have our troubles). And then there’s the issue of adding to the suspense of a story, too. Some such characters are done well, but I have to admit I like protagonists who have solid home lives…

  9. Keishon

    In the Houston Press, I was just reading that Pleasantville isn’t a sequel per se. I see that’s debatable. I plan to give her a try. I have to admit that I will probably start with Pleasantville. And dysfunction has its place in the genre. Good to have a well rounded character who is engaging without all the emotional baggage most sleuths are saddled with today.

    • Thanks for sharing, Keishon. It isn’t really an immediate sequel to the events in Black Water Rising, ‘though it follows from them. There is certainly something to be said for fiction characters who have their own ‘ghosts.’ I think the best thing though is variety. I wouldn’t want to read about the same kind of character non-stop.

  10. Kathy D.

    Sequel only meaning that Pleasantville takes place 15 years after Black Water Rising and features the same protagonist, Jay Porter.
    I suppose it’s like saying that Sycamore Row is a sequel to A Time to Kill by John Grisham. It also takes place years later, but features the same protagonist and several other characters and takes place in the same city.

  11. Col

    Sounds interesting and I’d be bound to enjoy it if I tried it, but I probably ought to stick with what I have for now. Maybe if I cross paths with it, rather than actively seek it out.

  12. Sounds like a really lovely book. When I make a dent on my growing pile, I am definitely adding this to the list.
    Thank you.

  13. This post reminds of the new TV series American Crime, where race plays a huge role, dividing a community. When, in fact, race really wasn’t the motivating factor in the murder. Another interesting topic, Margot, disguised in of your awesome spotlights.

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