Simon & Schuster (August 2018)
Stephen Markley’s novel Ohio follows four twenty-somethings (Class of 2004) back to their home town in Ohio shortly after Obama’s election. Chapters follow each character to New Canaan, giving their backstory with special attention to their high school years. New Canaan has been ravaged by the financial crisis and torn apart by the conflicts in the Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the biblical name, this was no Promised Land. Life in New Canaan was man against man, neighbor against neighbor.
Bill Ashcroft, Stacey Moore, Dan Eaton, and Tina Ross each have their own dark reason for returning to town and one fateful night culminates in conflict. (That word ‘conflict’ is quite the understatement.) In some ways, the character’s stories can stand alone, a bit like the those in Elizabeth Strout’s work. But from childhood through high school and into the present, their lives–and a whole cast of hangers on–have woven together in inexplicable ways and Markley shows us the underside of the tapestry, all loose threads and knots.
Let me be blunt: this book was a difficult read. Markley touches on alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual violence, assault, eco-terrorism, and murder. The angst of a generation–born of economic disparity, family dysfunction, misogyny–is revealed in all its ugliness.
I began reading the book one night before bed and within the first fifty pages had read about a detailed description of a meth trip, a drug-fogged drive involving some sort of contraband, and a funeral with an empty casket–and all I could think was, “This is waaay too depressing. I’m not sure I can finish it.” Twenty-four hours later I turned the last page.
Nearly two years ago I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a raw look at the same time and place, told through the eyes of Vance who had overcome his circumstances–and escaped. While it was an intriguing read, it didn’t touch me quite like Ohio did. There is something about fiction that cuts deep.
So read Ohio … but be prepared to have your quiet world shaken.