“Blue Green: A Novel”
Author: Gregory N. Whitis
Publisher: Page Publishing Inc.
Gregory Whitis grew up in Iowa, graduated from Iowa State University, earned a Master’s at Auburn “studying fish” and for a time he worked as manager of Alabama’s largest catfish farm.
After a second career as a deputy sheriff in Hale County, Whitis has begun his third career—as a novelist.
“Blue-Green” is his first and, no surprise here, is the story of Warren Pope, a young man from Iowa who in 1991 gets a job managing a huge catfish farm in fictional Tazewell, in the Mississippi Delta, near Greenville, and runs afoul of the mean, corrupt chief deputy sheriff, Leo Abrams.
The reader will learn a lot of what he would need to know to operate a catfish farm, and perhaps learn he does not want ever to run a catfish farm.
On the surface, it looks easy enough. You put the little fish in the ponds, feed them and then harvest big fish, tons of them, and make a fortune.
But all through the Mississippi summer young Pope has to check the oxygen content of all 36 seventeen-acre ponds every two hours including at night. Each pond is a slightly different color because there are fifty species of algae, one of which is blue-green. The algae provide oxygen, but if the algae die, the fish perish. Above 8 parts of oxygen per million is OK. Less than 4 parts per million calls for immediate aeration.
(On the other hand, in the winter, the catfish, mostly dormant, hardly need to be fed at all.)
I enjoyed the seining scene, dangerous work, in which a pond is emptied of 80,000 pounds of fish that need to be delivered to the processing plant ALIVE. There is a taste test. Slightly sweet is best. Algae, especially the blue-green, can give an off-flavor.
Pope, who had been raised on a hog farm, does fine.
Besides the instruction on catfish farming, which I appreciated, there is a lively story.
Pardon the pun, but Pope the Iowan is himself a fish out of water. He really doesn’t understand the local racial tensions, so when a black employee’s father dies and the ambulance driver taking away the body uses the n-word, “Pope’s lightning reflexes never gave the man time to finish. He slugged him so hard in the solar plexus, the man’s knees buckled and he dropped to the ground with a thud.”
Of course, there will be repercussions.
As Pope soon learns, everybody in Tazewell is related to one another.
He is warned by Chief Deputy Abrams: “… you better watch your step down here. We got our own set of rules. Not like where you are from.” At Bagby’s diner, the ONLY place to eat, the seductive cougar waitress, Sheila Abrams, is the chief deputy’s wife. Readers, and Warren, know this is a bad idea but Pope’s girlfriend, a coed at Ole Miss, calls to tell him she has decided she is a lesbian, so Pope has fallen on hard times.
As the novel progresses, we come to know Pope’s mother, an Iowa state trooper, his boss, Bo Nelson, a retired Ole Miss and NFL running back and his catfish farm crew, colorful characters all.
Tensions rise. There will be quarreling leading to a mildly violent climax and denouement.
The prose is clear and uncluttered. The story moves briskly from scene to scene. I found “Blue-Green” an enjoyable, even admirable, first effort.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.