It’s summertime in Houston in the early 1980s. A middle-aged small-time lawyer wants to give his wife a birthday gift, something nicer than he gave her last year: a “moonlight cruise” on the bayou. But the boat is small and dingy, slapped together, and he’s choked with disappointment.
Jay stands beneath his city, staring at the raggedy boat, feeling a knot tighten in his throat, a familiar cinch at the neck, a feeling of always coming up short where his wife is concerned. He feels a sharp stab of anger. The guy on the phone lied to him. The guy on the phone is a liar. It feels good to outsource it, to put it on somebody else. When the truth is, there are thirty-five open case files on his desk, there wasn’t time to plan anything else for Bernie’s birthday, and more important, there hasn’t been any money, not for months.
They go out anyway. Out on the dark water, beginning to relax, they hear gunshots, then screams. A woman, in the water. They pull her into the boat, fighting both their own distrust and hers, then take her to the police station. And it’s this simple action, this simple effort to help, that will get Jay Porter into more trouble — almost — than he’s ever encountered in his life.
This book toppled my expectations from the very opening pages. I know how this is going to sound (profoundly stupid), but it took me ten pages to realize Jay Porter was black, because my default assumptions for middle-aged lawyers come with my own pink skin color. The woman he rescues is white. Those facts, and the deep, essential racial tensions of Houston in the ’80s, undergird this book and give it its breath and bones. From these very opening pages, Attica Locke kept me slightly, deliciously off balance, telling me things I knew I should know, things I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Black Water Rising is essentially a thriller. It has two story lines: one, from Jay Porter’s activist past during the civil rights movement, intrudes on, bleeds into, and distorts the one in the present, which has to do with oil, the longshoremen’s union, and secrets no one wants told. We are always wondering whether Jay is seeing the truth, or whether he is seeing only his own paranoia. Is he being followed, or is it just traffic? The federal government spirited away a lot of activists, years after their involvement in the cause, but would they get a small-timer like Jay?
Locke has a strong sense both of place (Houston in the summer; smaller towns, with welcome signs that advertise the Klan; honky-tonk bars; window air-conditioning units that never cool you off quite right) and time. The early 1980s were, after all, only a dozen years after that burning summer of 1969. No one would really have forgotten. Many African-Americans had chosen economic prosperity over real political power, and resentment was just under the surface. Locke shows that raw place, over and over; that silence. Locke’s vocabulary is extremely visual (she has worked in screenwriting) and I could certainly see this as a film.
I’ve seen other reviews express frustration with Jay Porter’s choices in this book, calling them illogical, saying that he never does the right thing. I can’t agree. I come from a dominant culture and a personal history that can trust the police and the government; Jay doesn’t. There are no good choices here.
This is a quiet thriller. There are no car chases, no explosions, and some of the subplots do make it a bit slow-moving. But the tension, the realism and the forceful decision behind the choice Porter makes are thrilling, the prose is a couple of notches above workmanlike, and the perspective — always off-balance, always out-of-key — kept me enthralled. I really enjoyed this book, and look forward to Locke’s second.