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The Oxygen Man
by Steve Yarbrough

reviewed by J.M. Frank

I am not in a position to judge how true the old stereotypes of the Deep South of the United States still are, but if you buy the characters in The Oxygen Man, not much has changed since the Civil War. Well, very little has changed—it seems some cotton farmers have switched to catfish farming over the last hundred years. First time novelist Yarbrough should know, having lived a good part of his life in the South. This is a novel filled with racism, small-town drunks, sluts, and scandals, football-worship, and dirt roads leading nowhere worthwhile. If anyone but a Southerner had written this novel, they would be accused of outdated stereotyping. But in Yarbrough’s hands, the story rings true. Characters, places, and events are all vividly and unpleasantly real.

The story revolves around adult siblings, Ned and Daze, who live together in uneasy silence. There is good reason for the tension between the two. The book moves in sections from past to present, allowing us to learn how family and town history has shaped the brother and sister. As it turns out, mother had a reputation around town, father was an alcoholic, and they were all poor. Poor but white, that is, which does appear to have its advantages in this small town. In present times, Ned works for an old schoolmate, Mack, on his catfish farm, and acts as a go-between between Mack and the black farmhands. As the story builds, tensions rise, forcing Ned and Daze to make some difficult choices.

The story is involving and the writing is engaging. The Ned and Daze characters come off somewhat likeable, despite some rather unpleasant traits. The one problem in the book is the ending. It would have been better if the author had carried the resolution a bit further. As it is, the ending is abrupt and not entirely satisfying. But the virtues of this novel outweigh any disappointment the ending may bring; it is definitely a worthwhile read.


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