The Oxygen Man

The Oxygen Man

by Steve Yarbrough

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In this powerful and gritty first novel, Steve Yarbrough takes us into the deep-South world of Ned Rose, who works nights checking the oxygen levels in fish-farm ponds and does all the dirty work his wealthy boss requires. He silently shares the family home with his sister Daze, who is nearly blinded by bitterness, obsessed with her mother's reputation as a loose,


In this powerful and gritty first novel, Steve Yarbrough takes us into the deep-South world of Ned Rose, who works nights checking the oxygen levels in fish-farm ponds and does all the dirty work his wealthy boss requires. He silently shares the family home with his sister Daze, who is nearly blinded by bitterness, obsessed with her mother's reputation as a loose, lustful woman. Since his angry teenage years as a scholarship student at a posh, segregated school, Ned's life has been marred by a violence that erupts loudly and quickly disappears, leaving him filled with secrets and regret. When one last hope for deliverance emerges, however, both brother and sister are forced to come to terms with their heritage.

Editorial Reviews

Karen Shepard
Steve Yarbrough, in his absorbing first novel, The Oxygen Man has captured the traditional themes of Delta fiction...issues of race, blood and birthright framed by a landscape that at times can seem too alien to support human a book that positively sparkels with soul and feeling.
USA Today
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Ned and his sister, Daze, live together in their parents' house with the scars of the past. First novelist Yarbrough reveals the source of their unfulfilled lives by looking back on their high school years, a time when their dysfunctional and often absent parents stood in the way of a normal home life and the chance to fit in at school. In Ned's case, his spinelessness and desperate anger caused him to commit violent acts he will never forget. Daze is unable to forgive him, and brother and sister live in the same house almost without interacting. Now, 20 years later, they attempt to reconcile with the past and with each other. Yarbrough cleverly and clearly illustrates life unfolding in a small Mississippi town through subtle references to race relations and town politics as well as detailed description of the natural surroundings. His intimate descriptions of his characters' lives make them real. Highly recommended. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
— Judith Ann Akalaitis, Supreme Court of Illinois Library, Chicago
Rain Taxi
Mississippi 's Delta country is an inexplicably fertile breeding ground for great writers. Steve Yarbrough [is] one of the finest to emerge from Yoknapatawpha County in recent memory . . .
Richmond Times Dispatch
Yarbrough knows how to keep a story in motion with twists and turns that make you want to read just a little more...up ahead, lies another curve, and you can't stop just yet.
Time Magazine
[a] compassionate, clear-eyed, expertly written first novel.... Daisy [is] a figure strong enough to have been limned by Faulkner....
John Skow
[A] compassionate, clear-eyed, expertly written first novel.
Kirkus Reviews
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'smoving conversation with his vagrant "Daddy," an itinerant housepainter unable to keep himself at home. A wrenching, compassionate portrayal of wasted lives in explosive conflict.

Product Details

MacAdam/Cage Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date:
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    Daze Rose was sitting in the kitchen eating an omelet with a little bit of ketchup on the side. While she ate, she read the Jackson paper. Somebody else she'd gone to school with had been convicted. Of a crime this time. He'd soon be coming home, back to Sunflower County, where they would put him to work in the Parchman Prison fields. So many people she'd known had gone to jail. So many more who should have hadn't.

    She heard Ned's truck pull into the yard. His door slammed. His work boots crunched the gravel; she knew they did even though she didn't hear it. The screen door closed.

    "Hey," he said.

    She kept her eyes trained on the paper. Behind her the refrigerator opened and closed. He popped a cap. The cap hit the counter.

    He was drinking Beck's these days, and he'd bought himself some new clothes, replacing his old Rustlers with Levis—he'd even bought himself one pair of Calvin Kleins, though as far as she knew he'd never put them on. He'd always wanted to be something he wasn't, and if she'd been what he was she might have felt the same way too.

    He drove the back roads in his pickup truck all night. He drove from this fish pond to that one, from that one to the next, lowering a boom into the water, checking oxygen levels. Sometimes he turned on the aerators.

    "I've never lost a pond," she'd heard him say.

    Out there at night, he also said, you saw the damndest things.

    She knew he wanted her to ask what kinds of things, andso she wouldn't. She knew he needed her to ask, and so some part of her wanted to, and because she wanted to she couldn't.

    He sat down at the table, stood the cold bottle on the place mat. She couldn't stop herself. Mistress of the gesture, she slowly looked up, let her gaze climb his torso toward his face. He needed a shave. His eyes were bleary. His hair was still more red than gray, but more gray was on the way. The fact that he had aged, and would age further, was a huge mark against him.

    He swallowed, though there was nothing in his mouth. He said, "What's in the paper?"

    "Kyle Nessler's going to Parchman."

    She pulled her bathrobe tight around her, laid her knife and fork on the plate, and stood. She picked up the plate and took it to the sink. Behind her wood groaned as he shifted his weight.

    "He killed his little three-year-old daughter," she said, "and buried her on the banks of the Pearl River down close to Crystal Springs." Hot water splashed onto the plate, diluting the ketchup, which began to spread toward the rim. "They gave him life. If you ask me, life's the last thing the sorry bastard deserves."

    She turned around slowly then and looked at Ned. As if the weight of her gaze were more than he could bear, he dropped his head.

She got out of the shower and stood in the steamy bathroom toweling off. She handled herself roughly. She rubbed her breasts hard; she made a cord of the towel and ran it back and forth between her legs like she'd once seen her daddy do. He'd been standing in the backyard when he did that. He'd just come home off the road, smelling of paint, and he'd gone out there to wash off. It was fall, chilly, and he'd worked the towel like that between his legs because he was freezing and he wanted to get inside. She was already inside, but she was freezing too, even after a scalding shower.

    In her bedroom she combed the tangles from her hair and blew it dry. She pulled on her work clothes: a pair of faded jeans and a loose tee shirt. Then she sat down on the side of the bed, aiming to put on her shoes. And she heard it.

    It came, as always, from the room next to hers. She imagined as always a creature with a protruding forehead crouching in a cave, peeping out at a black sky torn by yellow streaks. The ground rumbled, and over all the rumbling came that other sound, pitched somewhere between a groan and a shriek, that sound she heard from the room next to hers, a single sound that was somehow symphonic.

    She froze, let a shoe dangle from her hand. She closed her eyes. Head bowed, reverent, she accepted, once again, this offering from her brother.

Chapter Two

    He turned onto the blacktop road that led to Mack Bell's headquarters.

    The headquarters was out behind Mack's house. The house had belonged to Mack's daddy, but he'd died back in '85, and Mack had moved up the road with his wife and kids. It was a big white house with a broad veranda. Rockers stood on the veranda, and every now and then Mack would sit in one of those rockers and drink a mint julep, though he hated anything sweet.

    The house had hardwood floors, fancy red tile in the kitchen, and enough bathrooms for a good-sized family to take a leak simultaneously and in private.

    There was a spa in the backyard, but Mack had built it under a pecan tree, and pecans were always falling in and clogging up the filters. When that happened, Mack's wife, Ellie, would call Ned. "It's the filters," she'd say, which meant Ned should get in his pickup, no matter what time of day it was, and come and clean out the filters.

    Ellie sometimes lay on the deck around the spa and watched him while he worked. She wore a skimpy two-piece, displaying cleavage north and south. Sun had burned her skin the color of a penny. She attended an aerobics class in Greenville four times a week, and all that jumping up and down had made her skinny.

    Ned never liked to be around her. She had a deep, slow voice that didn't seem to go with her wiry body, and every time he worked on the spa he had to listen to that voice asking questions. At one time or another, she'd asked him how much Mack paid him, why he liked night work, how come he hadn't finished up at the junior college, and didn't he want kids. She made him feel like he was a potato she'd decided to peel just to see what rotten spots she could find beneath the skin. This afternoon her car was gone—she was probably over in Greenville, he guessed, probably jumping up and down, trying to work off another eighth of a pound.

    Mack's pickup was parked near the tractor shed. Ned hadn't even shut his truck door before Mack came stomping out, carrying a big wrench in one hand. When he saw Ned he stopped and stared at him for a minute, his jaw locked so tightly it might have been wired shut. Then he pounded his palm with the wrench. It was clear he wished he could have pounded something else.

    "Get in my truck," he said. "Got something I need to show you."

The steering wheel dug into Mack's belly while he drove, even though he'd pushed the seat as far back as it would go. He'd always been big, but now he was nearing fat, mostly because he drank all day long. He kept an ice chest in the back of the pickup truck, filled with beers that Ned had trouble pronouncing the names of. Okocim, Dos Equis, Pilsner Urquell. That was where he'd first tasted Becks. Mack didn't offer him beer very often anymore. Ned didn't know why, but there was a reason.

    There was a reason for everything Mack Bell did or didn't do. Some of the reasons were easy enough to understand. When Ned had asked him why he'd invested thousands of dollars backing two guys who wanted to develop a sonar detector for use in fish ponds, Mack said he'd done it because the time was coming when banks wouldn't agree to loan money against a fish farmer's stock unless the farmer could prove electronically that it was there. That made sense enough to Ned. But when he'd asked why Mack had installed the spa right under a tree, Mack said he'd only bought the thing because Ellie kept bitching about not having one, and he'd put it under the tree in hopes the pecans would keep the spa broken down. And that made no sense to Ned, though it must have to Mack.

    "There's been some weird shit going on," Mack said, "and the bulk of it's happening at night."

    "Weird shit usually does."

    "Yeah, it does, don't it?" Mack said. The question was not a question, but it hung in the air between them, as a question sometimes does, for four or five seconds.

    "Course, I've seen weird shit happen," Mack said, "in broad open daylight. You know that blacktop road Sam Arnet lives on? Go on four or five miles past Sam's place, and there's a little country grocery on the north side the road. I was driving by there the other day, and I saw six or eight guys standing in a circle near an old overgrown gas pump. I slowed down to see what was going on. About the time I pull up even with the pump, one of them dudes gives a Rebel yell and jumps straight up in the air and comes down with both feet together, and there's the damndest mess of blood and guts spewing through the air you ever saw. Son of a bitches had give a cat a bunch of tranquilizers and laid it on the ground and paid this one fellow to jump on it. Poor bastards was just wasting their money. Guy like the one that jumped on that cat—hell, give him a shot of whiskey and he'd of done it for pleasure."

    He turned onto a levee that separated two of his ponds, and they bumped over the ruts. The ponds spread out toward the horizon, sunlight dancing golden on the muddy water. Each pond held about seventy thousand catfish, weighing a pound apiece, and those fish would sell for sixty cents a pound.

    Mack pointed at the pond on their left. "When's the last time you checked the oxygen level here last night?"

    "Around two-thirty."

    "How'd it look?"

    "Looked fine. Why?"

    "When I woke up this morning, it was cloudy, so I went out and checked all the ponds. I come by here around seven-fifteen, and my reading was a little bit low."

    Mack parked the pickup near the aerator, opened his door, and got out.

    The aerator was connected to the drivetrain of a John Deere tractor that stood parked at the edge of the pond, the rear wheels down in the water. Mack walked over to it. "Take a look at this," he said.

    He pointed at the engine. There was a glaze on it, right under a neatly severed injector line.

    Ned sniffed the air. "Goddamn."

    "I climbed up on the mother this morning and cranked it and went off and left it running. Come back this afternoon to take another reading, and the goddamn place smelled like a Texaco refinery."

    "You didn't smell diesel when you cranked it?"

    "Fuck yes, I smelled it. You ever crank one of these and not smelled it? I got around here this afternoon to see if the filter was leaking, and that's when I found that cut line. Somebody used a hacksaw on it, and whoever it was knew we were aiming to seine this pond next week. Now we've got several gallons of diesel in the water. The whole son-of-a-bitching pond'll be off-flavor for months, and in the meantime instead of cashing a check from Southern Prime, I'll be writing one to the feed company."

    "Who you think'd do that on purpose?"

    Mack toed a clump of grass. "Ned," he said, "I don't mind somebody being dumb, but I can't stand it when somebody acts dumber than they are. It makes me start wondering what they're up to. Because normal people—and I put myself smack in the middle of that category—don't want folks to think they're not smart. I see somebody that wants me to think he's a fool, I'm liable to tell him to jump in the lake."

    It was one of those moments when setting and suggestion meshed nicely. Ned was standing at the foot of a levee separating two ponds, and he was standing next to a man who, if he chose to, could probably make Ned submerge himself in either one. Mack would have a reason if he gave the order for Ned to jump in the water. We need to run the cans, he might say, and Ned would have to slog into the water and run his hand into each of the old ammo cans they'd sunk around the edge of the pond for the females to lay their eggs in—being careful, as he did it, to avoid pissing off the big male catfish that was hovering over the can, fanning the water with his tail and just waiting to fin anything fool enough to disturb the eggs. Or Mack might say, I dropped my Rolex in the water, get down there and grab it. Or he might just say, I want to see you wet.

    "You know fucking well who'd want to make us lose a pond," Mack said. "Any one of several niggers, though I think we could probably narrow it down to three."

    He climbed back up the levee to the truck. Ned followed him, shielding his eyes from the sun, which was just going down. They got in and Mack cranked up.

    "You think it was done last night?" Ned said.

    "Yeah. Because number one, I had that tractor running another aerator yesterday, and I drove it back here late yesterday afternoon, so I know it wasn't done then. Number two, I know it wasn't done this morning because I know where Booger and Q. C. and Larry were, and it was one of them that did it. You know those son of a bitches come to me Monday morning and demanded I raise 'em to six dollars an hour?"

    "What'd you tell 'em?"

    "What do you think I told 'em? I told 'em to quit dreaming and start working."

    "What's number three?"

    "Number three," Mack said, "is that in general, a nigger's a creature of the night."

    "I guess that's what me and them have got in common," Ned said.

    "It's one thing."

    Mack pushed the cigarette lighter into the dash, reached into his shirt pocket, pulled a Lucky Strike out of the pack that was always there, and lit up. "You walk around any nigger graveyard in the Delta," he said, "and I guarantee you that for every ten marked graves you see, you'll come across one little five- or six-foot-long depression with nothing where the headstone ought to be. You and me both know who it was ended up there. And why."

    He gestured with his thumb at the cooler in the back. "You want you a Heineken, Ned?" he said. "You my right hand and always will be."

Chapter Three

    Ned checked all sixteen of Mack's ponds once between eight and midnight. He'd plugged a spotlight into the cigarette lighter on the dashboard, and he drove along the levees, shining the light out the window at the dark water, looking for signs of fish along the surface—that was the only evidence they provided when the oxygen was low. Every now and then he'd park the truck, clip the spotlight onto the door, and get out and drop the boom with the probe on it into the water. He kept a notebook open on the truck seat, and when he finished taking his readings he'd climb the bank and write them down.

    A thick paste, distilled from midges and mosquitoes, coated the windshield of his pickup. His shirt sleeves were red with mosquito blood and sticky from the repellent he sprayed on his clothes. Midges clogged his nose so that he had to keep blowing it every few minutes.

    Once, as he walked down a levee toward the water, he heard a rustling sound in the Johnson grass four or five feet away. Looking down, he saw a cottonmouth as big around as his leg. He ran back up the bank and grabbed the 9-mm. he kept in his truck and squeezed off a shot, but the snake had already slithered off into the grass, where it might well be waiting three or four hours from now when he checked the pond again.

    Something was always out there.


What People are saying about this

James Lee Burke
...[O]ne of the best writers to come out of the South in many years...a stunning novelistic debut.

Meet the Author

Steve Yarbrough is the author of Family Men, Mississippi History, and Veneer. A professor of English and creative writing at Cal State, Fresno, he was named John and Renee Grisham Southern Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi for 1999-2000. He lives in Fresno, California.

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