A gripping debut novel about a town in decay, and the inhabitants swept up in the crises of modern America
The debut of a major talent; a lyrical and emotional novel set in an archetypal small town in northeastern Ohio — a region ravaged by the Great Recession, an opioid crisis, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — depicting one feverish, fateful summer night in 2013 when four former classmates converge on their hometown, each with a mission, all haunted by the ghosts of their shared histories.
Since the turn of the century, a generation has come of age knowing only war, recession, political gridlock, racial hostility, and a simmering fear of environmental calamity. In the country’s forgotten pockets, where industry long ago fled, where foreclosures, Walmarts, and opiates riddle the land, death rates for rural whites have skyrocketed, fueled by suicide, addiction and a rampant sense of marginalization and disillusionment. This is the world the characters in Stephen Markley’s brilliant debut novel, Ohio, inherit. This is New Canaan.
On one fateful summer night in 2013, four former classmates converge on the rust belt town where they grew up, each of them with a mission, all of them haunted by regrets, secrets, lost loves. There’s Bill Ashcraft, an alcoholic, drug-abusing activist, whose fruitless ambitions have taken him from Cambodia to Zuccotti Park to New Orleans, and now back to “The Cane” with a mysterious package strapped to the underside of his truck; Stacey Moore, a doctoral candidate reluctantly confronting the mother of her former lover; Dan Eaton, a shy veteran of three tours in Iraq, home for a dinner date with the high school sweetheart he’s tried to forget; and the beautiful, fragile Tina Ross, whose rendezvous with the captain of the football team triggers the novel’s shocking climax.
At once a murder mystery and a social critique, Ohio ingeniously captures the fractured zeitgeist of a nation through the viewfinder of an embattled Midwestern town and offers a prescient vision for America at the dawn of a turbulent new age.
Before reading Ohio, I was familiar with some of Markley’s excellent non-fiction, which reminded me of some of Matt Taibbi’s earlier work (although, perhaps more polished). Slightly off-kilter, but sharp and amusing, his style was immediately attractive and interesting. I therefore came to Ohio with pretty high expectations. I’m happy to report that I was not at all disappointed: this is a fantastic novel, one that straddles Richard Russo-esque examination of struggling America and small town mystery/crime.
Ohio is an interesting, amusing, biting critique of small town America, but one that seems to come from a place of love. The characters are somewhat dismissive of their hometown, and yet find themselves inevitably pulled back. When they return, they fall into old patterns (in action and in thought), finding an uneasy comfort in the environs while simultaneously itching to get away. Markley is unsparing when it comes to laying bare the hypocrisies of heartland Christian and political values, set against the jingoistic, emotionally-charged days post-9/11. At the same time, he also presents the nuanced qualities and complexities of those people he portrays.
As the synopsis states, this story takes place upon the return to New Canaan of four high school friends, whose lives have all ricocheted off in wildly different directions. Markley does a fantastic job of giving each character a distinctive and engaging voice. For some writers, this might have led to a disjointed feel to the novel (each chapter is told from a different perspective), but Markley handles this perfectly. Each POV character provides their own perspective on and interpretation of certain events from their final years in high school. The author gives us just enough in each chapter to add depth to our understanding of what fractured the friends’ relationships, and why they ultimately followed the paths that they did. Each chapter brings us closer to the Terrible Event of their final year, and the novel takes on a stronger mystery component as it progresses — while simultaneously never losing its literary examination of the town and community and focus on the characters.
The book is filled with many amusing and/or sharp observations. Some look at the current and recent political environment in the United States — or, really, the beginnings of what we’re going through now — and the sense of stasis that is evident in many ways.
Passing into town he’d spotted several houses with their ROMNEY/RYAN yard signs still holding on nearly nine months after those two effete, moonbeam-colored Cylons bit it. He spotted other yard signs that appeared, as sure as the seasons, begging people to vote Yes on a doomed school levy.
All of Markley’s characters are vividly drawn and wholly realistic. It’s not only the protagonists who have distinctive voices, too. Each of the secondary and peripheral characters feels fully three-dimensional, and the author has a gift for description and amusing character observation. For example, this one, which I loved:
The trigonometries of his patter were familiar. The Ohio drawl acting as interlocutor for an urbanized, hip-hop patois gleaned from interaction with young black men mostly via CD.
While reading Ohio, I definitely got an updated Richard Russo feel to the prose and examination of small-town America. This was certainly not a problem for me (Russo is one of my favourite authors), and Markley’s prose is excellently composed and pulled me along easily. The story is substantial and satisfying, and I loved learning more about the characters and their lives. There were some surprises, plenty of tragic revelations, and sharp observations.
Very highly recommended, Ohio is easily one of my favourite reads of the year so far.