Monday, November 30, 2009

Black Water Rising

Jay Porter is struggling. He lives in a cramped little apartment with his pregnant wife, a woman he has known since she was thirteen years old, and he wonders if they can ever afford a better home. Porter, a player during the Black Power movement of the 1960s, is now a lawyer with a cheap, strip mall office and an incompetent secretary he can just afford. His clients are walk-ins and referrals who can barely afford to pay him at all, much less an amount that would offer Porter a decent profit for his work. So, when one of those clients arranges a free boat ride down Houston’s Buffalo Bayou in lieu of a cash payment, Porter accepts the deal and decides to celebrate his wife’s birthday on the little boat.

As the boat makes its way through the heart of downtown Houston in near total darkness, the Porters and the boat’s captain are startled by a woman’s desperate screams for help. It is impossible to see the woman or her attacker from the boat but, as they are paused to listen, the three soon hear the sounds of someone rolling down the bayou’s steep bank and splashing into the water. Porter manages to get the barely breathing woman into the boat but, because he fears getting involved in the problems of this white woman, he brings her to the police station’s front door and slips away before anyone can see him or get his name.

It is only when he sees the story in the newspaper that Porter learns that the woman he rescued may not have been a victim at all - she might, instead, be a murderer. Still reluctant to get involved, Porter only learns how much trouble he is in when a stranger offers to pay him for his silence about what he saw and heard the night of the murder. The man leaves Porter with two choices: take the money and remain silent or be shut up for good.

Attica Locke has here the makings of an intriguing story about a former Black Power radical trying to make his way through the still tense racial attitudes of 1981 Houston, Texas. She does, in fact, do a remarkable job of capturing the mood and atmosphere of 1980s Houston, a period during which the city was facing almost uncontrollable growth in both population and serious crime. It was a time when whole neighborhoods were off limits after dark to whites and blacks alike, high crime black neighborhoods whites did not dare enter and high income white neighborhoods where blacks drew the immediate attention of Houston cops.

Locke, though, makes the mistake of creating two additional subplots that do little more than complicate her story. First, she gets Jay Porter involved with a young man who has been beaten by union thugs who want to head off an economically crippling strike by dockworkers at the Houston port facilities. Next, she exposes Porter to a plot by Big Oil to manipulate the price of gasoline at the pump, a plan about which only one old white man and Porter seem to care. These subplots overwhelm the more interesting, and plausible, mystery of the woman in the bayou and eventually begin to seem almost cartoonish - especially in the way that Big Oil is represented in the most stereotypical way possible. Few of the associated characters seem real and, as a result, even Porter and his wife become less sympathetic characters.

And that is a shame because the first chapter of Black Water Rising is one of the best lead chapters I have read in a while. This could, and should, have been a very different book.

Rated at: 2.5

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