Oxygen Debt Book Review: A Satire on Running and Life

A literary (in its own right) review for Duncan Larkin’s novel, Oxygen Debt.

By on September 17, 2010 | Comments

Oxygen Debt bookYour exhaled breath doesn’t go very far on a super-heated summer day. It parks itself in front of your face in a suffocating mess of carbon dioxide and the stale odor of partially-digested whatever-you-had-for-lunch. I first imagined that this smothering sensation is what Oxygen Debt’s main character, Clay, feels in each waking moment. Clay doesn’t, though, as he’s much too dumb. That doesn’t preclude Oxygen Debt’s readers from espousing Clay’s abandoned emotions, taking a wild ride along his fetid life path, and feeling instinctual relief when it is he, and not you, who is beaten to a near-death pulp with a bowling ball.

Oxygen Debt is a story about a man who becomes a runner for the singular purpose of chasing the tail of a woman named Karen. Karen is a fast runner, leggy and lean, and she possesses a sharp mind that’s highly prized by her employers. At first blush, she seems like a good focal point for Clay’s devotion. She’s not, though, and you can feel pretty quick that something about her just ain’t right. Clay chases Karen; Karen chases a demon the reader isn’t meant to fully understand; and the two run themselves into the deepest recesses of human psychosis. Oxygen Debt’s two main characters get lost, real lost, and there’s no happy ending like in big-screen movies.

When I snapped this book shut, I shuddered. This is a work of fiction, but it feels real. There’s no shimmer-y gloss, as the reader is ground-level immersed into Clay and Karen’s R-rated lives. You can hear the demons screaming in Karen’s head as she runs, and you want to shut your eyes and look away when Clay reaches into his pants yet again to pleasure himself.

I’m a big picture girl, so, when it’s all said and done, I can’t stop myself from trying to let Oxygen Debt’s message filter out of the chunky bits leftover from Clay and Karen’s obliterated lives. Without the exorcising qualities of therapy, we all remain indebted to some long lost moment of our lives that didn’t go well the first time around, our own demons. I think Oxygen Debt reminds us to pay back, whether doing so is for the purpose of loosing those demons of history, to keep your current karma bank full, or for the organic value of being more than a selfish human being.

Don’t take Oxygen Debt too seriously, as it’s mostly a good satire of  bachelorhood, the world of the redneck, the selective cruelty of humanity, and, perhaps most relevant to most of us, athletic endeavoring gone one step too far. To enjoy this read, you’ve also got to embrace it as a first, self-published novel: ignore the peppering of grammar and punctuation errors and don’t focus upon your wish that the editor had a heavier hand [Edited: Oxygen Debt’s additional printings have been edited and are now error-free.]. Cede to author Duncan Larkin’s experimental writing forms and, on your next run, make sure to look over your shoulder to see what debt is chasing you.

About Oxygen Debt, author Duncan Larkin says, “I dreamt up Oxygen Debt while running 100-mile weeks. To get to that kind of mileage while keeping a full-time job and doing my share as a single parent, I was forced to run at night. At the time, I lived in Connecticut and ran down narrow roads with just my headlamp in front of me. I started thinking about being chased in all that suffocating blackness. At that moment, Oxygen Debt was born.”

You may purchase Oxygen Debt here.

Oxygen Debt Giveaway [Closed]
We gave away a signed copy of Oxygen Debt and an iRunFar Headsweats running hat to Alisa for leaving a comment describing her craziest, beyond category race/workout, something that’s a sane person’s comparable to the Clay and Karen’s midnight marathon that wraps up the novel. The contest was judged by author Duncan Larkin.

Meghan Hicks

Meghan Hicks is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. She’s been running since she was 13 years old, and writing and editing about the sport for around 15 years. She served as iRunFar’s Managing Editor from 2013 through mid-2023, when she stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief. Aside from iRunFar, Meghan has worked in communications and education in several of America’s national parks, was a contributing editor for Trail Runner magazine, and served as a columnist at Marathon & Beyond. She’s the co-author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with Bryon Powell. She won the 2013 Marathon des Sables, finished on the podium of the Hardrock 100 Mile in 2021, and has previously set fastest known times on the Nolan’s 14 mountain running route in 2016 and 2020. Based part-time in Moab, Utah and Silverton, Colorado, Meghan also enjoys reading, biking, backpacking, and watching sunsets.