Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Black Water Rising"

Attica Locke is a writer who has worked in both film and television. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has written movie scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and Jerry Bruckheimer films, as well as television pilots for HBO, Dreamworks, and Silver Pictures. She is currently at work on an HBO miniseries about the civil rights movement.

She applied the “Page 69 Test” to her acclaimed debut novel, Black Water Rising, and reported the following:
From page 69:

He’s not proud of his fears, but there they are, pinching at him from all sides like too tight shoes, restricting his movements, limiting his freedom. A shame, considering the real reason he marched so many years ago was to prove fear was dead, that it belonged to another time, to men like his father.

Jay sits at his desk, thinking about Jerome Porter.

The same image always comes to him, like a well-worn photograph in his mind, a snapshot of another time. It’s an image of his mother, eighteen, sitting in the front seat of her daddy’s pickup truck, Jay’s father, twenty-one and strong, behind the wheel. They were newlyweds, the way Jay always heard the story. His mother, Alma, was just starting to show. They were riding on a farm road that ran behind Jay’s grandmother’s place, a barbecue joint and green grocer, where his parents were both working the summer after they married. Jay’s father was driving his young wife home ’cause she wasn’t feeling too good on her feet.

There was another truck on the road that day, riding their bumper and honking the horn, two white men in the cab and a loaded rifle rack in the back window. This was Trinity County, 1949, a lawless place for men like Jerome Porter. The police were white. The sheriff and the mayor. And they made it known that the countryside belonged to them. There had been a rash of poultry theft that fall and winter, somebody (or bodies) sneaking onto people’s farms after dark, spiriting away valuable hens, sometimes going so far as to slit a guard dog’s throat in the process. Wasn’t no way to tell who it was, but white folks got it in their minds that it was niggers’ doing. They set up vigilante groups, guarding property with rifles and axes, questioning folks coming in and out of the grocery store, even harassing little boys coming out of the colored elementary school.

To be honest, I didn’t really see it at first. When I opened my book to page 69, I recognized the scene right away: Jay Porter, a black man and a criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas, 1981, is seated at his desk, trying to decide whether or not to call the police about a murder he’s read about in the newspaper – a murder about which he may know more than he cares to. Near the top of the page, he talks about his fear of law enforcement. But the rest of the page is the start of a flashback about his father, going all the way back to a day in 1949 in Trinity County, East Texas. It doesn’t, at first glance, have anything to do with the main storyline, the murder that has Jay up at nights, fearing for his safety and that of his wife. But I was forgetting that the soul of this book lies in many ways with Jay’s father. Though page 69 is slightly different in tone and temperament from the rest of the book, it is in fact a snapshot of the psychology of the main character, Jay Porter. Because what happens on the next page defines Jay as much as anything else that comes before or after in the book.
Browse inside Black Water Rising, and learn more about the book and author at Attica Locke's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue