This is a primer for readers too young to remember the fight for Black Power in the 1960s and 70s. It is also an invective against the manipulation of the government by big oil companies. And, lastly, it's a sad tale about union strikes and the hovering shadow of mechanization just over the horizon. These are big issues for a debut novel to take on, and the result is a little uneven but captivating.
In 1981, Jay Porter is black and a lawyer in Houston. His wife is expecting their first child. Where once he was fire and revolution, he is now establishment and quiet. His former girlfriend is the new mayor of Houston, and her 70s rhetoric has led her in a different political direction. His father-in-law is involved, and gets Jay involved as a result, in a longshoremen's union strike.
The catalyst that propels the convergence of all the issues is the rescue of a white woman from a canal. Jay and his wife are happily celebrating her birthday while drifting down the canal on a rag-tag boat scrounged up through the connections Jay has made in his financially shaky practice. They hear a woman screaming, gunshots, and splashing.
If Jay had never jumped in the water, if Jay hadn't been curious about the woman's story, if he hadn't heard she was being arraigned for murder, if someone hadn't bribed him to stay out of it, if a young man hadn't been beaten up because of the impending strike, if the man he accuses of masterminding the beating weren't an officer in a fraternal union, if there weren't an oil crisis, perhaps Jay would have lived a long uneventful life.
Attica Locke's story is clever, but there are times when the long interludes in which she describes the student politics of the 60s and 70s seem to undermine the rhythm of her main story. Stokely Carmichael, the SDS, and black power schisms are a volatile mix, and they introduce the tale of Jay's felony arrest and trial when he was a young college student. Some elements are integral to the current story, but the lengthy background setup interrupts the otherwise fast-paced tale of the woman in the canal. Along with the strike storyline with all of its participants, there's a lot a reader has to go through to get to the end of Locke's book.
Then, too, this is the second story in a row for which I've guessed one of the main plot turns long before the end and wonder why the knucklehead of a protagonist can't tell the storyline from the asides. Having said that, this book gets high marks for bringing in interesting issues, cleverly interweaving the past and the present (including our 2010 present), and creating a complex and sympathetic protagonist. (I didn't really mean to call him a knucklehead.) I can see why Black Water Rising was nominated for an Edgar and chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. Locke's writing is clear and compelling. When she brings in the phrase "black water rising" towards the end of the book, its poetry and multiple meanings hit hard.