Stephen Markley’s debut novel, “Ohio,” opens with a small-town parade for a local hero, Rick Brinklan, a high-school football star who enlisted after 9/11 and was killed in Iraq in 2007. The coffin is on loan from Walmart and the flag blows away and gets stuck in the branches of an oak tree. One of Rick’s friends looks at downtown New Canaan and sees “a magazine after it’s tossed on a fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn but just before the flames take over.”
Welcome to Middle America. It’s tough out here.
Six years later, when Markley picks up the story, life is much worse. “… New Canaan looked like the microcosm poster child of middle-American angst,” he writes. “… Ohio hadn’t gone through the same real estate boom as the Sun Belt, but the vultures had circled the carcasses of dying industrial towns — Dayton, Toledo, Mansfield, Youngstown, Akron — peddling home equity loans and refinancing. … A fleet of nouveau riche snake oil salesmen scoured the state, moving from minority hoods where widowed, churchgoing black ladies on fixed incomes made for easy marks to the white working-class enclaves and then the first-ring suburbs. The foreclosures began to crop up and then turn into fields of fast-moving weeds, reducing whole neighborhoods to abandoned husks or drug pens. … Every city or town in the state had big gangrenous swaths that looked like New Canaan, the same cancer-patient-looking strip mall geography with brightly lit outposts hawking variations on usurious consumer credit.”
The people aren’t doing any better. Most of “Ohio” takes place on a single night, six years after Brinklan’s funeral, when four of his friends come back to New Canaan for different reasons. Bill Ashcraft was Brinklan’s childhood buddy who opposed the war Brinklan embraced and fell into a disillusioned drug haze. Stacey Moore is looking for the love that defined her. Dan Eaton’s done three tours in Iraq and is trying to connect with his lost love. Tina Ross confronts her first boyfriend in a twisted turn of events that ties it all together, emphasis on “twisted.”
“Ohio” is not for the squeamish. Opioids (and every other drug), gang rape, torture, murder, suicide, domestic terrorism, wartime atrocities — it’s all there, described in feverish prose that reaches for the stars and sometimes lands on the pavement. Markley works himself into a sweat trying to put an LSD-plus-crystal-meth experience into words and comes up with this: “The digits webbed, and the gnarled face grew stranger still as huge worms came writhing from the orifices and fell to earth in wet clumps.”
For every misfire, there are a dozen triumphs, large and small. The characters walk and talk like real, messed-up people; the author cares about them, and so does the reader. The prologue-four sections-coda structure works because Markley took the time to connect everything in a masterful set of flashbacks and flash-forwards that parcel out enough information to make the conclusion both shocking and inevitable. “Ohio” is a big novel about what happened after 9/11, the initial euphoria and the long depression that grips us still.
“Ohio” by Stephen Markley, Simon & Schuster, 496 pp., $27
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