Friday, June 24, 2011

That's oil, boy

When I listened to Here in Harlem, I realized how long it had been since I had listened to a book read by Dion Graham. Over a year! Yikes! I have quickly remedied that (and I mean quickly, I listened to this 13-hour thriller in just five days) with Black Water Rising. This is a juicy bit of historical fiction, written by Attica Locke, that takes place during the go-go 80s (1981) in the fastest-growing city in the U.S. at the time, oil-rich Houston, Texas.

Jay Porter is living in the go-go 80s without experiencing much go-go. He's an African American storefront lawyer with an expectant wife and not much else. His current client is a prostitute with a civil suit over a neck injury received on the job; Jay's hoping to get $10,000 in damages from the fairly high-profile john. Ten years ago, Jay was an idealistic radical, organizing black students to protest for equality and justice. Until the FBI raid, the betrayal, and his trial for inciting violence. Thanks to one black juror -- and the support of a small black congregation led by his future father-in-law -- Jay avoids conviction on the false charge. But the experience changed him, Jay doesn't rock the boat anymore and he lives with a certain amount of fear and despair.

On August 1, Jay is out celebrating his wife's birthday -- on the cheap -- with a "cruise" (in a rusty scow owned by a relative of a non-paying client) down Houston's Buffalo Bayou. They are almost enjoying the humid night when they hear a woman's cry for help, followed by some gunshots. Jay and Bernie watch, horrified, as a woman tumbles into the murky water. Urged by Bernie -- but against his better judgment -- Jay dives in and rescues the woman. She refuses to tell them anything and when they insist on dropping her off at a police station, she seems to be waiting on the steps for them to drive away.

And thus begins a classic Man-Who-Knew-Too-Much story of a man whose innocent action drags him reluctantly into a morass of greed, corruption, racial inequities, and Texas politics. Locke builds her story slowly but inexorably -- with red herrings, side tracks, and plenty of humid, threatening atmosphere -- and when the complex twists and turns finally seem to be clearly unraveling, she tosses in a few more surprises. I listened so steadily because her story was pay-close-attention complex and breathlessly exciting.

I really enjoyed her hero, Jay, a good man battered by his personal history. He's almost paralyzed by it, it colors everything. You're not quite sure he can set it behind him, even if it means his very survival. I appreciated the insights into black America in the 1970s and 1980s -- I am ignorant of how inequitable life still was for blacks (particularly in the South?) during my own white, privileged young adulthood.

Dion Graham was ... well, great (no surprise). He read the novel in a tense near-whisper, tinged with Jay's hopelessness. As Jay gets closer and closer to understanding what happened on the Bayou and why, more strength and confidence can be heard in Graham's narration. A mouthy, chain-smoking reporter named Lon (female) helps Jay solve the last pieces of the puzzle, and their conversations almost approach banter. (Jay does not banter, even with an old lover.) And when he embraces his wife and nuzzles her neck in the last minutes of the story, speaking to his unborn child, there's a sense a peace that you haven't heard at all in his voice. Even though we're not sure how things are going to ultimately work out, Jay has emerged from his fearful isolation ready to make change again.

The novel has a large cast of characters and Graham successfully voices them. For the most part, he avoids a caricaturish Texas twang (except when the character needs it, like his prostitute-client's john), instead giving the story's corporate and legal bigwigs voices of strength and command. He creates a wide range of voices for the novel's African American characters as well. One in particular has a voice "coated in nicotine" which Graham uses as his cue for a deep rustiness.

Graham also paces this novel well, keeping it calm and serene in places and then picking up speed and tension in his voice for its many action sequences. The audiobook uses a driving, percussive piece of music between chapters that continues briefly once the narrative starts again that was actually quite effective. The music varied enough (or perhaps the chapters were long enough) that it didn't sound repetitive. All in all, it's a good production.

I shouldn't be surprised anew how good Graham is as a narrator (he won this year's Audie for teen books [a book I'd eye-read]). Aside from his work in children's literature, I've mostly listened to mysteries/suspense. I need to branch out. After all, he has. I've had Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which Graham narrates) in my possession (not just on my hold list) for some time now, but can't bring myself to listen. There's no logical reason, I'll probably love it; I loved What is the What. (I finally copied Genius onto my computer last night, so I think I'm closer to listening ...)

[The photo of oil seeping up from the ground is from near Korňa, Kysucké Beskydy, Western Carpathians, Slovakia. It was taken by Branork and was retrieved through Wikimedia Commons.]

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
Narrated by Dion Graham
HarperAudio, 2009. 13:30

No comments: