Listeners across the state may feel they know Norman Gilliland, as well as we can know anyone from listening to a mellifluous voice over the air waves. A producer as well as a host of assorted interview programs on Wisconsin Public Radio, Gilliland also happens to be the sound we hear on many “Chapter A Day” episodes. We adopted him or he adopted us from a background in Gainesville, Fla., in the same general region where this Depression-era novel takes place.
Gilliland is a serious literary type, as is obvious from his previous books on classical music, his audio productions of classics Beowulf and Oedipus Rex, and a previous historical novel. Not a historical detail of “Midnight Catch” is out of place, so far as I can tell. He offers us a mixture of noir, the famous dark-detective-novel genre made famous by writers like Dashiell Hammet back in the 1930s-40s, and a regionally based social drama.
Our hero, a wandering laborer from Wisconsin, happens to be a topical folk-singer in the age when Woody Guthrie was making his big splash. Despite a local radio show of his own, this singer-songwriter is not bound for glory and plain lucky to escape prison on a false murder charge. He has stumbled into an ongoing family and community crisis, with rum-runners, hard-hit farmers, youngsters and oldtimers, sinners and saints, African-American and white, all seeking to make it through the difficult times of the early 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt’s Second New Deal is still years way, and for him at least, the very name of erstwhile Milwaukee socialist leader Victor Berger calls up nostalgia. The socialistic message goes down hard among gun-toting white conservatives of rural Florida.
It would not be fair to give away much of the plot about an unsolved murder, unresolved marriage problems, and a young boy trying to get a grip upon events around him. If the characters seem at times too numerous, the plot too complex when a more narrow gauge might have made the reader’s task easier, the action is convincing, and Gilliland’s sense for the times excellent. Readers will enjoy this entry, and enjoy hearing the author’s voice even more the next time they happen to tune him in on the radio.