Life in the Air Ocean

Life in the Air Ocean.png
Author name: 
Sylvia Foley
School of the Arts
Class Year: 

This debut collection brings together nine linked stories, slipping backward and forward in time to give us two generations of a family: the Mowrys of Carville, TN. Moving from the 1930s to the 1980s, these stories explore the wilds of childhood and the barren landscapes of adulthood, from the tar flats of Tennessee to the lush countryside of Bogota, Colombia, where the Mowrys go to live in the early sixties in an attempt to bring their world into line. But no matter what they do to escape one another, they find themselves back together—a closed-in society of four. Theirs is a precipitous love that both cements the family and rends it apart, a love that the Mowry daughters endure and rebel against, each to reinvent her own.

“The air ocean of Sylvia Foley’s challenging debut story collection refers to the oxygen-rich atmosphere that envelops the Earth. It’s a place where, for the Mowry family of Carville, Tennessee, the very act of breathing contains the threat of drowning and suffocation. Daniel Mowry grew up in Massachusetts during the Depression; in ‘Boy Wonder,’ he tries, unsuccessfully, to take flight in the backyard while his mother metes out kisses through the mesh of a screen door. With such a frigid Yankee upbringing, it’s no wonder Daniel grows up to be a refrigeration engineer. Still, he’s drawn to warmer climes; he marries Iris, a self-hating nurse from Memphis who eats only eggs, and moves to Tennessee; in ‘Elemenopy,’ we find them living ‘on a dead-end road.’ When, in ‘Cloudland,’ they’ve moved on to Colombia, the tropics offer no relief: ‘On the altiplano, living on thin air, they were prisoners of altitude.’ Foley refuses to allow the Mowrys any way out. When daughter Ruth runs her head into a concrete wall, we suspect that the bad behavior has been handed down to the next generation; the assumption is borne out in ‘A History of Sex,’ which finds Ruth, now an undergraduate, hawkish on both Vietnam and impersonal sex. Foley’s stories are relentlessly grim, but they glint with a cold, steely wisdom.”—Los Angeles Times review, Best Fiction of 1999