Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Carr Harkrader
Ohio, the debut novel by Stephen Markley, is a bumpy journey that doesn’t quite reach its destination. It starts with a funeral and ends with a murder, and, in between, traverses across the people and problems of the fictional New Canaan, Ohio. Markley chronicles the return of four former high school classmates to their now declining hometown. A washed-up radical, a grad student, a soldier, and a victim bent on revenge all somehow manage to converge back there during one summer night.
That Markley is able to get them all there is impressive. Although each chapter focuses on one of the characters, the more than 500-page novel sprawls out like the exurban town where it takes place. “The sky over the place you were born has a familiarity beyond how the clouds roll in or how the stars wink at you at night,” Markley writes, and you get the sense he would like to document everything below that Buckeye vista. The chapters are dense with thoughts on that specter of the sky, continually intersecting plot lines, and drug-fueled rumination and reminisces. The paragraphs work like pistons, churning you in and out from the present day to high school years to back again. The effect is immersive and, when it works well, highlights the little distance in our mind between past actions and current events.
However, the structure can, like the high school hierarchy that Markley so aptly observes, be a vise as well. Each chapter follows one of four high school classmates from 2001, now visiting their old hometown twelve years later. The adult characters are simultaneously emotionally stunted from their Ohio adolescence and completely representative of all the social ills of contemporary Midwestern America. They seem designed less as a personality and more as point. The first quarter of the book follows Bill Ashcraft, a smart-alecky jock in high school who somehow grows up to campaign for Barack Obama, participate in Occupy Wall Street, fight for environmental justice in Louisiana after the BP oil spill, and somehow become an unwitting gunrunner for an opioid addict. The following quarters delve into other classmates, now adults. Stacey Moore goes from a deeply Christian adolescent consumed with what will get her into heaven to a literal spiky-haired lesbian who studies writing about what comes out of the earth. Tina Smith falls from high school popularity to working in a Wal-Mart, partly to pay her dad’s health bills. Iraq War veteran Dan Eaton comes back to Ohio not only a symbolic cyclops, but an actual one to having lost an eye in battle.
The narration contributes to the problem and joins Ohio to a cohort of recent commentary on the Midwest. The third-person perspective makes the reader feel like they are peering at these young adults from behind plate-glass windows at the zoo—before you lie the prototypical specimens of the upper Midwestern region. The distance of the description makes difficult and knotty stories sound like literary disaster porn at times.
As the book slogs on and builds to a bloody conclusion (both in the high school years and present day) its gruesomeness becomes too much to bear and detracts from the insight of what, after all, connects these people to a place that has wounded them and shaped them alike. You almost wish Markley had started with only one character and stopped after one novella-chapter; indeed, the quarter of the book on a Dan Eaton, a young veteran dealing with a fellow soldier’s death while serving in Iraq, is particularly poignant.
Markley is, as you can guess, after something big with the novel. What exactly that is is less clear. The Rust Belt has been a recent fascination of the national media, a sort of regional spoiled water-well that can pull up buckets of stories about the (white) working class, opioid addicts, economic decline, and whatever other social horror can be conjured. Markley obviously cares deeply about the people of Ohio and showcases an almost obsessive attention to detail (in the acknowledgements he even gives a shout out to a friend that reminded him of the integral part that the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers playoffs run played in their lives). But he can’t help objectifying those people as well. At one point, Stacey, the dedicated high school churchgoer, talks about the Hell House, those church-run alternatives to haunted houses that are unyielding mummies and bloody vampires with unwed mothers and evil abortionists. For all its insight into small town decline, Ohio makes Ohio feel like America’s Hell House; somewhere where the thrills ultimately come from the judgment we place on them.
Ohio is available at local bookstores and online retailers.
Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.