A catfish farm in crisis, a young woman running an obstacle course of the heart, and two old friends at a Texas prison may sound like the elements of a tear-in-your-beer country song. Don't be fooled, though, for these elements make up three distinctive first novels determined to cure your summertime blues.

The back roads of Mississippi are dotted with catfish farms, manmade lakes stuffed with the bottom feeders most folks enjoy fried. And Steve Yarbrough's The Oxygen Man is one deep-fried novel.

Original, bold, eerie, Yarbrough's novel takes readers on a trip through snake-infested environs where racism and violence ride shotgun with poverty. Ned Rose works Mississippi nights checking the oxygen levels on catfish ponds for Mack Bell, an old friend with a short fuse. His sister Daze (Daisy) works Mississippi afternoons at Beer Smith's tavern. The siblings occupy the same ramshackle house their parents left, but they don't talk much, and haven't since a horrifying event that occurred while they were in high school. Mack suspects some of his African-American workers have started sabotaging his ponds and enlists Ned to give them a dose of southern justice. After a lifetime of being pushed around by Mack, Ned has a decision to make. And so does Daze, who, like Ned, walks through life as an apparition. What is so stunning about Yarbrough's debut is its downright rawness. He creates some of the creepiest scenes and characters in memory, such as a dead-on portrayal of a high school football coach at an all-white school, the kidnapping of an Ole Miss co-ed, and a screaming motorboat ride that ends in disaster.

But for all the nervy southern gothic touches and the relentless threat of violence, Yarbrough writes with tremendous heart. The pages pulse with a Faulknerian aura of familial fate and the quiet determination to overcome one's own history.

Mark Luce sits on the Board of Directors for the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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