Saturday, January 30, 2010

Attica Locke's Debut Novel

OK, many of my readers are probably too young to even remember Attica, the New York state prison that was the scene of an uprising integral to the civil rights movement, "back in the day," as they say. Oddly enough, neither is Attica Locke, though she was named by her parents after that infamous place. You wouldn't need to read the personal notes on her website,
(though you should for the interest value), to understand how deeply affected she was by a movement that her parents defined and she surely profited from.

Still, changing laws and changing hearts are two very different things. Ask any African American who's still leery of "driving while black" through certain areas of North Florida. Think about the subtle connotations (or not so) dredged up when a pickup with a confederate license plate pulls up a tad too close behind you at a light. These are the kinds of feelings that Attica Locke creates in the reader's gut with her debut and highly regarded first novel Black Water Rising which takes place in 1980's Houston.
I'm listening to this in the car and am looking for excuses to drive anywhere, do any errand just to find out what's going to happen next! Kudos to reader, Dion Graham, for adding a very personal touch with his perfect voice and pitch and to the musical riffs between chapters for adding to the dark atmosphere.

Fledgling lawyer Jay Porter and his very pregnant wife Bernie,are enjoying a Saturday evening boat ride with family to celebrate Bernie's birthday with good food and friends. As Bernie and Jay enjoy the damp evening river air and talk about the baby, shots ring out from the bank and a woman's cries for help remind them that they're not in Kansas any more. Prodded by Bernie, a preacher's daughter and a woman who can't walk away from someone in trouble, Jay jumps in the water to rescue the woman they spot tumbling down the embankment. Within minutes of dragging her on to the boat, the crowd and the reader understand that all is not as it seems and Jay's good deed will not go unpunished.

What follows is a convoluted plot, not without some holes, but exciting just the same, that results in Jay's being threatened and harrassed by an unknown stranger, and pulled into a labor dispute of water front workers that is turning violent, pitting black workers against white as they struggle for basic pay and benefits. But most interesting of all, Jay is pressured into calling in a chit owed to him by Houston's new mayor, a woman with whom he had a long love affair years before when they were both college student radicals in the civil rights movement. Through this plot device, Ms. Locke is able to give the reader a history lesson on the SDS, SNCC, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the decision to assert a Black Power movement to effect quicker, more potent change. Alternating between past and present the author raises the level of her novel from just another murder mystery to something more intense, much like my favorites George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. I'd love to see us get her to Florida for the reading festival next year!

Meanwhile, if I can boast for just a minute, I had the pleasure of reviewing another fantastic debut novel for Library Journal a month or so ago and the starred review was in the January edition so I'm sure it's ok to link to it now that it's out in the public domain. I have no idea how the editors determine which reviews are starred for special notice but I had the good grace to blush with pleasure when I saw it. Hope Tom Rachman's publicists liked it as well. Called The Imperfectionists, it should be out in April. or scroll down to "Rachman" to read full review:

1 comment:

dschirtzfl said...

I read Black Water Rising because of your blog-comments. I agree it has some holes, but also amazing power. I tend to discount my own involvement in the civil rights movement ( as a suburban housewife in mid-Ohio), but much of the anger and anxiety came back to me as I read this novel.