September Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Houston seems an unlikely setting for a novel. It is a monstrous city of four million, sprawled across 50 square miles of mosquito-infested Texas swampland. When I first arrived there in 2005, I could not understand why anyone would volunteer to drain and tame this unpromising landscape — and then cover it with concrete freeways. Houston seemed to be an irredeemable place, an urban accident built on an emaciated form of the American dream.

But there is always more to a city than meets the eye, particularly when that city reflects the scars, hopes and greed of 20th-century America. Houston gave America untold oil wealth and vast urban land — but it was also home to such symbols as Enron, whose bankruptcy was one of the most spectacular corporate tragedies of the late 20th century, and Tom DeLay, a notorious Republican politician who ran his party in the 1990s and 2000s with the combined tools of coercion and corruption.

The contradictions do not end there. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in America, with a Hispanic population of well over a million, but it remains a deeply divided place, with people hermetically sealed in their neighbourhoods and cocooned in their air-conditioned cars. Its subtropical climate notwithstanding, nature seems to want to punish Houston in other ways too: the city regularly gets battered by fierce hurricanes of the kind which destroyed New Orleans in 2005.

If all of this — and more — makes Houston an unpromising place to live, it does not make it dull. Far from being a dubious place to set a story, the city in fact makes an excellent backdrop for Attica Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising. It is the city that adds an additional dimension to her tightly constructed crime thriller. It is because we see our characters through the eyes of Houston that her story comes to life.

It will come as no surprise that many of the themes mentioned above appear in her novel: oil, land, race, segregation and heat. That said, one of Locke’s finest achievements is to turn some of Houston’s preeminent characteristics upside down. For such a vast, sprawling city, she makes it feel remarkably claustrophobic, and for a city that appears so mind-numbingly suburban, she makes it feel alive, edgy and raw. To use her words, Houston is a “restless, adolescent city, forever picking at its pimples…”

Yet this is in stark contrast to most of the characters in the novel, almost all of whom are aging, jaded and losing their edge. The main protagonist of the novel, Jay, is a black lawyer with a checkered past as a political activist in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. However, by the 1980s (when the novel is set), Jay is more concerned with surviving and looking after his pregnant wife. The last thing he wants is to get involved in a crime web that stretches deep into the oil industry and the Texas state administration.

Nevertheless, he is unable (or unwilling) to resist the temptation to get involved when he accidentally hears a shooting on the Houston bayou. As he follows the story to its conclusion, he is forced to confront various political and emotional ghosts from his past, and to delve deep into the murky world of Texas politics in order to unravel the mystery behind the shooting. The plot races to its conclusion with the speed of a masterly detective thriller.

But Locke has given readers more than just a finely crafted crime novel; she has given them a sketch of black politics since the 1960s. The narrative moves backwards and forwards from Jay’s early activist life to his present life, taking in the profound changes in the politics and stakes of black activism since the Civil Rights movement. The novel’s conclusion gives one hope that there are people out there willing to defend principles in politics; but Locke seems sceptical of the potential for African-American solidarity — a solidarity that was paradoxically broken by the formal desegregation of blacks in the late 1960s.

Jay’s story reflects this changing form of solidarity. In the 1960s, he is a member of various movements campaigning for black autonomy in an unequal state; by the 1980s, he is pursuing some of those same goals individually in the courts as a lawyer. Of course, some forms of solidarity still exist: for instance, the impetus for Jay’s renewed involvement in politics comes from black unionised dockworkers, who remember Jay’s commitment to political causes and look to him for help. But the victory at the end of the novel very much belongs to Jay rather than the dockworkers’ unions.

The message is a humbling — if sober — assessment of political changes in a place like Houston: with the growing complexity of race relations and black politics in urban America, only small individual fights can make a difference. As Jay puts it in the final pages of the novel when the mayor of Houston — and his former lover during his days of black activism — tells him he cannot win his legal battle, “it only matters that I remember to speak up.”

This sentiment is, no doubt, of more than purely academic origin. Locke herself grew up in the shadow of her parents’ black activism, even though by the time she was born they had settled into the suburban life of the black middle-class of the 1970s. In fact, she had to negotiate the contradictions of her parents’ withdrawal from politics. Rather like the work of many second-generation immigrant children — which seeks to reclaim memories their parents would rather forget — Black Water Rising has that same sense of engagement with past memories and present concerns.

Indeed, the plot is ‘autobiographical’ in another very important respect: actually Locke did hear a mysterious gunshot on the Houston bayou during one of her birthday parties as a child. She admits that Jay’s story was born out of that fateful incident. The book is her version of what might have been.

But this sense of paths taken (or not) has a broader meaning. Through the crackling prose, the potent plot and the suspense, Locke is asking us which path Houston (and America) will take. Will it choose to ignore the gunshot in its backyard, or will it try to find out the reasons for the shooting? Jay’s story is a reminder that, however dangerous, there is much to be gained from asking difficult questions — and that if it is possible in Houston then, surely, it must be possible anywhere else.