A weblog dedicated to noir fiction and film, music, poetry and politics.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
Black Water Rising sounds like it could be the name of a blues number sung by Bessie Smith or Memphis Minnie. And, in its own way, Locke's book is a kind of blues for the generation that came of age, as Locke's parents did, during the days of the civil rights and black power movements, and had to contend with its aftermath. Set in Houston during the Reagan era, it's about the onset of free market economics, the fracturing of unions through divide and rule resulting in their loss of power, the rise of oil as a dominating force, and the creation of a new, more mature politics. Locke's protagonist is Jay, a disillusioned, former activist, now a two-bit lawyer with a wife, a minister's daughter, about to have a baby. Consequently, the demands of family life and the church mitigate Jay's attempts to go his own way, which he does until he can no longer stay on the outside and must join the fight which means coming to terms with his past. These might be old tropes, but they work well here, as former friends from the movement and the community, including his former girlfriend who is now mayor, want him to intercede on their behalf. Just one small point of contention in what is one of the best crime novels of the year: the plot point on which the novel turns is a scene in which the college chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, led by his former girlfriend, hijacks a rally held by black activists, led by Jay. Now maybe things like that happened in Houston, but at San Francisco State and Berkeley where I happened to be during that time, it would have been unimaginable for SDS or any other predominantly white political organization to hijack a rally held by the Panthers, the Black Students Union, or the Black Power movement. Groups like SDS were too much in awe of black groups, and even intimidated by African-American groups to pull a stunt like that. But, okay, after a brief spell saying "this just wouldn't have happened," I suspended any disbelief and allowed the narrative to take me where it was going. Needless to say, I enjoyed the ride. This is an interesting and important novel, and I'm already looking forward to Locke's next book.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.