Yarbrough, Steve 1956-

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Yarbrough, Steve 1956-


Born August 29, 1956, in Indianola, MS; son of John and Earlene Yarbrough; married, 1987; wife's name Ewa; children: Tosha, Magda. Education: University of Mississippi. B.A., 1979, M.A., 1981; University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, M.F.A., 1984.


Office—California State University, 5241 N. Maple Ave., Fresno, CA 93749-8027. E-mail—[email protected].


Author and educator. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, teacher, 1984-88; California State University, Fresno, CA, professor of English, 1988—. University of Mississippi, Grisham writer-in-residence, 1999-2000.


Associated Writing Programs, Phi Kappa Phi.


National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1995-96; Pushcart Prize, 1998, for "Preacher"; California Book Award, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for fiction, and Mississippi Authors' award for fiction, all 2000; PEN/Faulkner Award nomination, 2005, for Prisoners of War.



Family Men, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1990.

Mississippi History, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1994.

Veneer, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1998.


The Oxygen Man, MacMurray & Beck (Denver, CO), 1999.

Visible Spirits, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Prisoners of War, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

The End of California, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.


Steve Yarbrough's southern roots surface in much of his writing, beginning with the first of his short story collections, Family Men. The setting of all the stories is Indianola, Mississippi (Yarbrough's birthplace), and sense of place is of utmost importance in the book. In a Hudson Review article, Robert Phillips called Yarbrough's characters "ordinary individuals involved in ordinary relationships which nevertheless perplex and overwhelm them. Yet Yarbrough is an upbeat writer," Phillips concluded, and he "tells his tales in simple language, sometimes spiced with a homely metaphor, as when an old woman feels ‘weaker than most folks' faith.’"

Among the stories about fathers and sons is "The Trip," in which a boy compares his father to his grandfather and how their experiences have contributed to their feelings about love. In the title story the narrator considers the influence that his alcoholic father and uncle have had on his life. In "Some Glad Morning," a disabled country singer suspects his wife of cheating. She is (with a former convict who is offered a job in Virginia), and is forced to choose between the two men. The singer attempts suicide, then recovers and begins courting his wife again. Greg Johnson noted in Georgia Review that this story "effectively dramatizes one of the book's major concerns, which is not whether you can go home again, but whether you should leave in the first place." Following this theme, the high school football coach in "Between Now and Then" turns down a job coaching a college team because it would mean leaving the woman he loves. "The Full Ride" finds the narrator, who is attending the University of Mississippi on a football scholarship, romantically involved with his high school English teacher. "Yarbrough conveys both the essential innocence of this love affair … and the way it preempts the young man's experience of college life," wrote Johnson, who continued by saying that each story in the collection "succeeds on its own terms and displays the author's impressive talent for conveying the lasting effects of home, family, and memory upon his characters." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the eleven stories "delights—taut, masterfully executed efforts tracing the growth of character." Shenandoah writer Heather Ross Miller said they are "crafted with wit and wisdom and a compelling, indestructible energy."

New York Times Book Review contributor Suzanne Berne said the people of Yarbrough's second collection, Mississippi History, are like the Mississippi river: "They willfully keep going, but history—whether personal or collective—chokes off any sort of easy passage." Each of the characters has a connection to Indianola, "where racism is as easy to find as catfish and acts of kindness, and where everybody, somehow, is troubled by the past," commented Berne. In "Stay-Gone Days," Emmie uses her wages from cashiering at a Piggly Wiggly to pay off an old boyfriend who is blackmailing her over her part in a crime they committed years earlier. The title story is about two boys who attend Indianola Academy, an all-white school established during desegregation that Yarbrough himself attended as a student. Kenny's best friend is Chuck Sterne, who is Jewish, and together they laugh at their teacher's racist jokes, but Chuck ignorantly tells an anti-Semitic joke, spoiling their relationship. Berne called the characters of this collection "ungainly, unpoetic, earnest people who work at understanding how the past has snagged their lives; they are grateful to be even partly successful." "Yarbrough's style is crisp and economical, but his stories are deceptively complex," wrote Frank Marquardt in Review of Contemporary Fiction. "Yarbrough is writing about dignity as his Mississippians confront the unrelenting struggle to subsist and to love in an often hostile and frequently alienating social environment."

The nine stories of Veneer include "The Lady Luck," wherein a movie is being shot in a Mississippi town. Other stories are set further from Mississippi—California and Europe, for example—but they all have a connection to the state. A Publishers Weekly contributor said Yarbrough "evokes not the sentimentalized or Gothicized South but one that is warm, engaging, and recognizably human." Randall Curb said in Southern Review that Yarbrough, "in addition to owning a sure sense of how to sculpt a story and cadence speech, endows his fiction with a striking particularity. He knows exactly what he can truthfully, pertinently give to his characters that—their origins notwithstanding—will make them solid and distinct."

Yarbrough's first novel, The Oxygen Man, is set in 1996, with flashbacks to the early 1970s, and revolves around Ned Rose, who checks the oxygen levels at the stock ponds of a catfish farm near Indianola. The fish farmer is Mack Bell, Ned's former high school football teammate, who is now seeking revenge against underpaid black workers he accuses of vandalizing his ponds, and for whom Ned has long done questionable work. Indeed, Ned and his older sister, Daisy, have spent more than twenty years avoiding each other in the house they share, she because of acts he committed years before. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "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." Booklist reviewer Frank Caso said that "laden with symbolism, this novel mixes well the classic elements of the family cycle of cause and effect, hidden and imminent violence, and the long gestation before restitution." Time contributor John Skow called Daisy "a figure strong enough to have been limned by Faulkner." Library Journal contributor Judith Ann Akalaitis said Yarbrough's "intimate descriptions of his characters' lives make them real."

Yarbrough's second novel, Visible Spirits, is set in 1902 and is based on fact. Tandy Payne, a gambler and failure, returns to his hometown of Loring, Mississippi, where his older brother, Leighton Payne, serves as both mayor and editor of the newspaper. Tandy wants the job held by Loda Jackson, the town's college-educated black postmistress. Loda, however, unknown to the Paynes, is also their half sister. The daughter of a slave owned by their once powerful father. Tandy attempts to turn opinion against Loda; he is supported by white planters but opposed by Leighton. Loda, who is married to Seaborn, a successful black insurance company owner, resigns in order to prevent further trouble, but President Theodore Roosevelt, under whose administration Loda had been appointed, refuses her resignation. A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that "Leighton and Seaborn, the story's moral centers, are repeatedly thwarted in their efforts to keep the peace…. Few characters here get what they deserve in life, a characteristically southern insight Yarbrough delivers in fluid prose." Caso, writing again in Booklist, called the plot of the book "strong on characterization."

Yarbrough's Prisoners of War is a "stark, haunting third novel," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic. Set in Mississippi during the early 1940s, the novel follows the young Dan Timms as he waits to become old enough to enlist and join the ranks fighting in World War II. Although Dan is still dealing with the recent suicide of his father, who was traumatized as a soldier during World War I, the death seems to fuel his desire to enlist. The young man's goal is juxtaposed by those of his close friends, Marty and L.C. Having just returned from the war, Marty seems irreparably damaged by the experience, which fuels L.C.'s determination to avoid it at all costs. Writing for Kliatt, Heidi Hauser Green noted: "All three youth are haunted by their upbringing; all three are changed by the sacrifices that are being demanded by their country. Steve Yarbrough's account of war is grim and gripping." The story is "philosophically troubling, artistically thrilling, and thoroughly impressive," concluded the Kirkus Reviews critic.

The End of California is a novel set in modern-day Mississippi, in the same small town that is home to two of Yarbrough's previous novels. In this case, the town of Loring becomes a refuge for former resident Pete Barrington, who left the town as a high school football star bound for a medical school in California, escaping a messy affair with a classmate's mother in the process. Twenty-five years later, another sex scandal forces his return: his successful medical practice in California is left in shambles after an indiscretion with a patient is revealed. Yet Pete's homecoming is complicated by a long-time grudge held by his former classmate, who blames Pete for breaking up his family. Critiquing The End of California, a contributor to Kirkus Reviews remarked: "Yarbrough fulfills the novelist's chief task, by giving weight and import to human actions." Jyna Scheeren also approved of the story, commenting in a Library Journal review that the "captivating novel of a prodigal son's return is written with wit, charm, and an obvious affection for the many characters that populate Loring." Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper noted: "Small-town ambience, with its conventions and crowdedness, its secrets and suspicions, is evoked with careful detail."



Booklist, September 15, 1998, Jim O'Laughlin, review of Veneer, p. 199; April 15, 1999, Frank Caso, review of The Oxygen Man, p. 1514; November 15, 1999, Bonnie Smothers and Brad Hooper, review of The Oxygen Man, p. 602; May 15, 2001, Frank Caso, review of Visible Spirits, p. 1735; April 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of The End of California, p. 6.

Georgia Review, winter, 1991, Greg Johnson, "Homecomings," review of Family Men, p. 778.

Hudson Review, spring, 1991, Robert Phillips, review of Family Men, p. 140.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2001, review of Visible Spirits, p. 362; November 15, 2003, review of Prisoners of War, p. 1340; May 1, 2006, review of The End of California, p. 439.

Kliatt, May, 2005, Heidi Hauser Green, review of Prisoners of War, p. 32.

Library Journal, September 15, 1990, Marcia Tager, review of Family Men, p. 103; May 1, 1999, Judith Ann Akalaitis, review of The Oxygen Man, p. 113; May 15, 2006, Jyna Scheeren, review of The End of California, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 19, 2001, Michael Harris, "Book Review; Book's Strength Lies in Its Silences; Visible Spirits," p. E3.

New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, Suzanne Berne, "Southern Discomfort," review of Mississippi History, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1990, review of Family Men, p. 64; August 15, 1994, review of Mississippi History, p. 91; July 27, 1998, review of Veneer, p. 54; March 1, 1999, review of The Oxygen Man, p. 58.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1995, Frank Marquardt, review of Mississippi History, p. 173.

Shenandoah, spring, 1992, Heather Ross Miller, "Storytellers," review of Family Men, p. 108.

Southern Review, summer, 1999, Randall Curb, "When Is a Story More Than a Story? A Fiction Chronicle," review of Veneer, p. 608.

Time, June 7, 1999, John Skow, review of The Oxygen Man, p. 82.

Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1995, review of Mississippi History, p. 58.