cover image The Oxygen Man

The Oxygen Man

Steve Yarbrough. MacAdam/Cage Publishing, $20 (280pp) ISBN 978-1-878448-85-9

With Merle Haggard playing in the background and bottles of beer accumulating in the fore, Daze and Ned, sister and brother, live restlessly and hopelessly in the small town of Indianola, Mississippi. The sharp and ragged edges separating the races and classes there are glaringly obvious. Ned, who drives through the fog-spooked back roads of Sunflower County by night, checks the oxygen levels in Mack Bell's catfish ponds. The rest of Mack's employees are black, but Ned perceives a vast difference in the ways he and Mack are white: ""the difference had a lot to do with the fat content of the foods they'd grown up eating, the odor of the toilet bowls they'd grown up using, the number of evenings their daddies had spent at home, the number of evenings their mommas stayed gone."" A deliberately severed injector line ruins one of Mack's ponds, costing him money and making him suspicious of the three oppressed black men he employs. Long-suffering, quiet Daze, meanwhile, doesn't flourish in the close quarters she shares with her brother, as their intimacy reveals its dark, manipulative side. Set in 1996, with frequent, lengthy flashbacks to the early '70s, when Daze and Ned were in high school, Yarbrough's bleak and yet extremely tender first novel explores the sad origins of their situation and exposes the sordid complications of small-town small-mindedness. Violence and racism claw their way into nearly every scene, and the language used by Yarbrough's characters can be disturbing and offensive, if on the mark. Author tour. (May)