cover image Black Water

Black Water

Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton/Signet, $17 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-525-93455-4

``You would not choose to drown, to die . . . trapped together in a sinking car, with a stranger,'' a narrator observes about the fate of Kelly Kelleher, heroine of Oates's ( Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart ) gripping and hallucinatory novella. In a plot shocking for its blatant familiarity, a figure identified as The Senator tipsily drives a young woman away from a Fourth of July party, veers off a dock and plunges the car into dank water, where he deserts her and she drowns, a chastely wrapped condom still in her Laura Ashley purse. Brief chapters, some taut as prose poems, sink into Kelly's past (she had hoped to help him campaign for the presidency) and then surge forward. Ebbing and rising like the engulfing waters, the narrative, too, swallows her in its finale. Returning to the theme of Death and the Maiden (the picture hangs on a wall in American Appetites , and the phrase was the original title of her classic short story ``Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?''), Oates here extracts a deeper, more terrible meaning. Kelly feels ``chosen,'' having long ago fallen under the sway of Politics and Eros as incarnated by the treacherous Senator, on whom she based her college honors thesis. The author chillingly augments her scrutiny of the tainted American official by incorporating statements about capital punishment by current legalists. Oates is at the top of her stunning form. 50,000 first printing; BOMC selection; author tour. (May)