“Nighthope: A Novel” By: Gregory N. Whitis
“Nighthope: A Novel”
Author: Gregory N. Whitis
Publisher: Page Publishing, Inc
Price: $19.95 (Paper)
Novel of Catfish and Cartels Keeps Readers Entertained, Educated
Gregory Whitis, originally an Iowan, has been the manager of an Alabama catfish farm, a deputy sheriff, and an extension specialist for Auburn University, advising catfish farmers.
As we learned in his debut novel, “Blue Green,” catfish farming is demanding, a tricky and dangerous business. In that story, Whitis’ protagonist is an Iowan in Mississippi. In “Nighthope,” set during the Clinton administration, our protagonist is again a fish out of water, this time from LA.
Stuart Baron, happily married with an adopted son, Win, is half owner of “Coast to Coast,” a gigantic and successful trucking company. They own hundreds of refrigerated trucks, specializing in moving perishables: vegetables, pork, seafood, fruit. They can move freight “ocean to ocean” in two days.
Whitis seems to be a compulsive instructor. Before he moves the action to Alabama, and catfish farming, we learn how to run a trucking company. Using new satellite technology, Coast to Coast keeps tracks of every truck, every minute. They use psychologically evaluated three-person teams, not two, so the trucks rarely stop. They use quality retreads but NOT on the “steers,” steering tires, as a blow-out there might cause a wreck. The big rubber treads cast off are called “alligators.”
Business is good, but life in LA becomes intolerable. Baron is nearly killed on the freeway, not by a wreck, but a stray bullet, and is accidentally present at an armed robbery.
He seeks a change.
Out running to relieve stress, he finds a giant bag of Mexican cartel money, takes it home and buys a catfish farm in Alabama’s Black Belt. Baron’s lovely wife Tabitha, a Minnesotan, at first thinks poorly of Alabama with “That ignoramus governor standing in the schoolhouse door…. And the mugging of protestors on the bridge.” Nevertheless, they move from their LA mansion to a crummy doublewide on the property.
There the boy Win has to navigate the local segregationist academy. We learn about the marijuana patches and the general cultural deprivation, mitigated, as it often is, by some very nice, friendly Christian folk.
Whitis now returns to teaching, instructing the reader in the perils of catfish farming. Those creatures, thousands to a pond, look tough with their hide and their barbs, but they are fragile as butterflies. Too much heat or food or too little oxygen can kill them in hours.
Luckily, the novice Baron gets needed help from Brian Caine, as it happens a knowledgeable, friendly, generous extension agent from Auburn, and although he has jumped into the deep end, he learns fast. Chinese machinery is no good. Avoid electrocution when wading in bonds. Admire Lynyrd Skynyrd.
While Baron is learning to raise catfish, the reader, having seen hundreds of TV shows, knows that the Mexican drug lords will want their money back. The villain, a fine creation named El Diablo, cruel, vicious, is on his trail. Diablo, the ugliest man in the world, has a scar from left ear to right ear, less than half a nose and eyes that don’t synchronize—"one looked straight ahead, the other skewed”—and is meaner than a snake.
There are little glitches in Whitis’ novel. He is still a novice. But “Nighthope”—part instruction manual, part comedy of manners, part action novel—has energy. The plot moves and I for one don’t mind learning about trucking and catfish farming rather than being told about the anxieties of adolescence or the distress of failing marriages.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.