Oates’s Black Water tracks a Fourth of July picnic as it leads to the seduction of Elizabeth Anne Kelleher, a woman half age, by an unnamed Senator. “A photograph of the Senator and Kelly presents a formally posed group, but what cannot be seen is The Senator’s expressed design of seducing Kelly and Kelly’s willingness to be seduced. The photograph, a picnic photo-op, tells the truth and lies, all at the same time.”
In their haste to get away and make love, the Senator’s Toyota overturns on a bridge, and while the Senator escapes, but does help Kelleher, aka Kelly. As she waits for help that never comes, Kelly narrates her story. The basis for Oates’s fiction is the real drowning of MaryJo Kopechne in a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy on Martha’s Vineyard in 1968.
Oates uses the picnic negatively. It presented sardonically as the antithesis of the national holiday the picnickers snidely call irrelevant,” A meaningless holiday now but one American all celebrate.” Oates’ cynicism carries over to the menu and the backyard gourmands who devour it: “it was time for the feast; borne by the wind a delicious smell of grilling meat over which Ray Annick in a comical cook’s hat and apron presided, swaying-drunk but funnily capable.”
The mixture of picnicking on the beach, mounds of food, and copious spirits encourage lust, the spark of which attracts the Senator and Kelly and her to him. In their haste, the pair decides to live carpe diem, which leads to Kelly’s death and the Senator’s disgrace. A heavy price for a picnic.
What they eat is described in a manner that is just slightly enough off-key to make the feast told in Kelly’s flashback unappetizing: “No: it was time for the feast; borne by the wind a delicious smell of grilling meat over which Ray Annick in a comical cook’s hat and apron presided, swaying-drunk but funnily capable: slabs of marinated tuna, chicken pieces swabbed with Tex-Mex sauce, raw red patties of ground sirloin the size of pancakes. Corn on the cob, buckets of potato salad and coleslaw and bean salad and curried rice, quarts of Haagen-Dazs passed around with spoons.”
See Joyce Carol Oates. Black Water. New York: Dutton, 1992