This is getting to be a year for first novels by outdoors writers. Like David James Duncan's The River Why (SI, Feb. 21), Geoffrey Norman's first novel, Midnight Water (E.P. Dutton, $13.95), is set in one of the more distinctive fishing areas of the U.S. Duncan's milieu is the rushing coastal rivers of Oregon, and Norman's is the salty, swampy, teeming waters off the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle. After that, all similarities between the two books cease except that, like Duncan's, Norman's is well worth your while; it may not be as timeless as The River Why, with its fictionalized appeal for the conservation of nature's gifts, but that's because Midnight Water is right out of today's headlines.
Norman, formerly an editor at Playboy and Esquire, currently writes Esquire's "Outdoors" column. He contributed to the text of The Ultimate Fishing Book, has a home on the Gulf Coast and is obviously familiar with the myriad coves and tricky channels of a coastline that was the refuge of pirates in the early years of the last century and is today the working grounds for another sort of outlaw.
The traffic in drugs—especially cocaine—to Florida by sea and air from South America has been generating wealth to rival that of the tourist trade and attracting a cadre of ingenious and ruthless smugglers from around the world. As local and federal forces have pursued them, these crooks have moved up and down Florida's Gulf Coast and the Keys, winning and losing battles and hijacking charter boats and private craft, harassing and even murdering their owners and passengers (SI, April 9, 1979). The ready availability of drugs today would indicate that the advantage still rests with the smugglers and Midnight Water describes their incursion into the Panhandle coast. If some of the book's fiction has no basis in fact, much of it reads like the notes of an investigative reporter for The Miami Herald.
Against this background, Norman has drawn a cast of pirates, pursuers and groupies and written—or tried to write—a thriller about their struggles for dominion over the waters. His success, I believe, is only partial, but it's enough to keep you hanging in there to the end. Not surprisingly, the book's best stuff is the result of Norman's knowledge of his home turf. His descriptions of the predawn scene at a ramshackle café where skippers and crews gather before going out with their charters; of the exhausting labor of old-fashioned nightlong meat-fishing to put snapper on your table; of the sleazy waterfront nightlife and the bloody clashes between drug-trade mercenaries and local machos, all have the pungent life of observed truth. And the occasional forays into nature writing are excellent—the breathlessly delicate technique of stalking shore birds with a camera; the discovery of a cloud of monarch butterflies resting during their long migrations to Mexico and beyond.
But much of the time, one of Norman's characters tells you page after tedious page about another character, instead of such exposition occurring by things happening. Characters like or dislike each other for no apparent reason other than pushing the plot along. The worst instance of this concerns Norman's protagonist, a political pollster, Dan Carpenter. It's incredible that anyone would admire or even react to a man so monosyllabic and noncommittal that it isn't until page 217 that he utters much more than a single brief sentence about anything. His laconism often makes him appear dense; his few words sound sappy. This is a hero? He also comes to you like a thousand other fictional leading males with a failed marriage that is never explained and an apparently overwhelming though inexplicable appeal to every woman he meets, all of whom want to leap into bed with him and do. This includes a groupie named Roxy, who likes to drench herself in gardenia-scented oil before she does her leaping. Well, O.K., that's not all bad. On the other hand, why does Norman kill her off so quickly? (I'm not giving anything away; you would have guessed it soon enough.)
You may well also guess a number of other things, because Norman hasn't been sufficiently subtle or devious about either plot or character. But you ought to meet him. He's a strong, supple, honest writer with a chartable future in fiction, and he doesn't seem the sort to make the same mistakes twice.