In the wake of the 2008 recession and on-going wars overseas, the United States saw manufacturer closings and foreclosures and the growth of a new population of PTSD sufferers, anti-Muslim xenophobes, and next-generation revolutionaries.
This new America is crystallized in New Canaan, Ohio, a small town constructed by Stephen Markley in his knockout debut, Ohio. At a time when “vultures…circled the carcasses of dying industrial towns,” a group of high schoolers wrestle with family burdens and internal monsters while living a seemingly normal teenage existence full of drunken parties, dysfunctional relationships, Total Request Live after school, and guilt-ridden Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings.
While these young lives are still being developed, the aftermath of September 11 starts to faintly thunder in the distance, a sound that intensifies as these kids age into their twenties and head to war, come out of the closet, overdose on heroin, or try to make something of themselves.
The novel begins with a funeral parade for one of them lost overseas in Iraq after high school—Rick Brinklan, the charming, dependable churchgoer, the “kind of guy you’d find teeming across the country’s swollen midsection: toggling Budweiser, Camels, and dip…calloused hands, one finger bent at an odd angle from a break that never healed right.”
The kind of guy, anyway, who ends up dying for his country after being rejected by his high school sweetheart, Kaylyn—one of the former popular girls full of secrets and anguish. Though Kaylyn makes the funeral, incredibly high and sitting next to Rick’s grieving parents, there are a few old friends missing from the procession.
Bill Ashcraft is a former friend of Rick’s and an alcoholic who was always sickened with rage at the military as a fall back. Once-innocent Stacey Moore has come out to her Christian family, and her former best friend Tina Ross still struggles with a lethal high school denial. The shrimpy redhead veteran Dan Eaton exhibits inklings of PTSD as he meets up with an old love.
We meet this cast of missing characters when they happen to visit their home town on the same night ten years after graduation, six after the funeral, unplanned and unsure they even want to see each other. The shifting narrators throughout the book serve the whirlwind that Markley has created. It’s fully engrossing from the start, save moments when you’re taken aback by how good the writing really is, how flawless the storytelling.
The high school flashbacks shine. Putting on Maybelline mascara in the bathroom before a school dance; lying to parents to stay out late with a crush; admiring the football team on a Friday night for their animal strength; being humiliated by someone popular at school; and realizing, finally, that the mixed, complex feelings for childhood friends never quite go away.
And these lives continue on, unsteadily handling death, murder, substance abuse, money trouble, sickness, and most of all the mystery of memory.
Who can blame them for wanting to disappear?
“There was bitterness at murder, grief at accidents, and fury at suicide. But to disappear—well, there was only mystery. And mystery was all three of those things bundled together and made more frightening by the impossibility of it.”
We see it’s no wonder betrayals are as common and as brutal as the active combat Dan still craves. And unimaginable secrets are buried with the dead.
The book’s title state remains an unsettling backdrop, though the small-town story is the same nationwide. Characterized by its forgotten industry and growing accidental death rate, Markley’s Ohio is exactly the kind of place you hear about in the news. The state still has one of the highest opioid-related mortality rates in the nation. Families are strung out across the struggling towns with scrap metal junkyards on their overgrown lawns and Republican candidate signs from years back blowing in an unforgiving wind. The “cancer-patient-looking strip mall geography with brightly lit outposts hawking variations on usurious consumer credit.”
If only we could bury ourselves in those first moments of untouched pre-adulthood. Bill, a cynical activist at twenty-eight, still carries around a photograph of his friends in high school.
He thinks, “you could look at anyone’s high school homecoming picture from any middling town or suburb in America, and they all looked like stock photos, the image that came with the frame, identical teenagers doing identical teenage shit and hoping it wouldn’t end because what lay beyond was too unknown.”
Ohio is a ceaselessly beautiful and gut-wrenching debut.
By Stephen Markley
Simon & Schuster
Published August 21, 2018
Stephen Markley is the author of three books: Ohio, Publish This Book, and Tales of Iceland. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and his essays and short fiction can be found scattered across the internet. He currently lives in Los Angeles.