Black Water Rising - Attica Locke

I'm struggling a bit with this one - not because it's poorly written, but because the setting - Houston, Texas, at an indeterminate time in the past that seems like it's probably the mid- to late-1970's - is so gritty, bleak and unpleasant.

 

Jay Porter is a struggling black lawyer in Houston, whose wife, Bernie, is very pregnant with their first child. There are two story lines - the first, and seemingly primary, story line focuses on a birthday cruise that Jay has arranged for Bernie, during which they rescue a white woman whom they originally thought was a crime victim from the river, but it seems that this may not be true. The body of a murdered man is found the following day, and then things get weird, and dangerous, for Jay. 

 

The second story line involves the decision by the dockworkers union to strike, which puts Houston's economy in peril, and which has resulted in a young black man, Darren, being beaten up by three white men. Jay has been asked by Bernie's father to speak to the mayor, an old friend from their college days, to seek prosecution of the men who assaulted Darren. One of them is fairly prominent, so you can see where this is going.

 

Interspersed with these stories are flashbacks to Jay's college years in the sixties, when he was a civil rights activist. He and the mayor, Cynthia, go way back to those days. Cynthia's character is confusing. I can't tell if she was just a white girl "slumming" with the civil rights activists for kicks, or if she was really committed. And I can't tell if she is going to betray Jay to retain the power she's managed to consolidate or not.

 

This is not a fast-paced book - Locke is unfolding and revealing in a positively leisurely manner, which is not the norm for this genre and takes some getting used to. Her writing is convincing, even if her characters (except for Bernie. Bernie is everything) seem to be continually making the worst possible, most dangerous, choices for themselves and their loved ones. If Jay's stupidity gets Bernie hurt, I am going to be pissed.

 

There is a lot of uncomfortable material in here to unpack. Locke doesn't pull her punches talking about race relations in Houston, and she does not romanticize the civil rights era, or the aftermath. It is dirty and brutal. Houston is humid, dirty and segregated, both racially and into extremes of wealth and poverty. I can't say that I like it, but I am interested in where it is going and where it will end up.

 

I am reading this for my Diverse Authors square.