THE OXYGEN MAN by Steve Yarbrough


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A superb first novel, about a doomed Mississippi family, by the author of three story collections (Family Men, 1990, etc.). The “oxygen man” is Ned Rose, a checker of oxygen levels in stocked ponds maintained by fish farmers in the vicinity of his hometown, Indianola, Mississippi. We first meet him (following a dreamlike Prologue) in 1996, when Ned’s employer and former high-school football teammate Mack Bell is scheming to punish the underpaid “niggers” he suspects of vandalizing his ponds. A heritage of bitterness and violence that continues to shadow not just Ned and cronies but his older sister Daisy (“Daze”) is then deftly revealed—in a consistently suspenseful narrative juxtaposing the events of Daze and Ned’s adolescence (attending a segregated private “academy” their family can’t afford) in 1972—73 with the downward momentum of their middle years, when Daze, fearful she’ll relive her “trashy” mother’s loveless sexual adventuring, hesitantly considers the attentions of a much older widower, and Ned, dogged by spasmodic eruptions of the murderous rage he knows is his nature, numbly surrenders to the “force out there . . . that had the potential to come and sweep everything and everybody away.” Yarbrough’s story abounds with generously detailed characterizations (malicious good-ole-boy Mack is a fine creation, as is Daze’s ill-fated high-school boyfriend Denny Gautreaux), gritty detail (Indianola is a convincingly dreary snake-infested backwater), and sharply realized scenes that resonate strongly: a macho coach whipping teenaged footballers into foulmouthed frenzy; a laconic duel of wits between Ned and a car dealer who tries to unload a broken-down Mercedes; Red’s moving conversation with his vagrant “Daddy,” an itinerant housepainter unable to keep himself at home. A wrenching, compassionate portrayal of wasted lives in explosive conflict.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-878448-85-4
Page count: 280pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1999


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