Reviewed by JANET MASLIN
New York Times
On the day he is to meet with the Houston mayor, Jay Porter takes special care not to wear his best clothes. That’s because as he dresses, he is being watched by Bernadine, his very pregnant wife, and because the mayor, Cynthia Maddox, is an old flame.
The year is 1981. Eleven years earlier, as a student at the University of Houston, Jay wore a dashiki, a goatee and a militant air. Cynthia, Jay remembers, was a noisily outspoken member of Students for a Democratic Society, a white girl drawn to black radicals “as sure as if the Temptations had come to town.”
Now Cynthia has a stiff blond head of helmet hair, an important office and a politician’s survival skills. Jay has a struggling law practice and a deep, gnawing sense of self-doubt. If he often feels as if others might betray him, he can thank Cynthia for some of that; she fell right out of love with him when he faced trumped-up charges of conspiring to incite violence. She vanished when he stood trial.
Attica Locke’s “Black Water Rising” uses Jay’s unease as a determinative character trait, one that will shape much of his behavior during Ms. Locke’s atmospheric, richly convoluted debut novel. Her story begins on a dark and watery night. Jay has taken Bernie (as she is known) on a bayou cruise when he hears cries for help, dives off the boat and rescues a damsel in distress. Knowing full well that only suckers rescue such damsels and that this may be “the oldest con in the book,” Jay nonetheless saves an expensively dressed white woman about whom he knows exactly nothing. The false assumptions that he makes about her will add a layer of interest to Ms. Locke’s deeply nuanced story.