The first thing you need to know about this novel that seems to capture Trump’s America so well is that Stephen Markley wrote it before Trump became president. Which is pretty much the same thing you need to know about Trump’s America – that it pre-existed Trump. The second is not to expect a traditional narrative. As Markley writes in the prelude:
It’s hard to say where any of this ends or how it ever began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear. There is only this wild, fucked-up flamethrower of a collective dream in which we were all born and traveled and died.
Ohio begins with a parade in the fictional town of New Canaan, Ohio, to honour a local boy, Rick Brinklan, killed in Iraq. It’s a blustery cold day in October, the town is “sleeved in red, white, and blue”, the coffin comes from Walmart. Markley uses the parade to deliver a vivid, quick-sketch portrait of the depressed, opiate-inundated, rust-belt town, the sort where the local sporting goods store makes most of its sales on guns and ammo, and where the financial crisis of 2008, with its wave of foreclosures and evictions, meant some people “just vanished, whole families blinked out of existence like the Rapture”. It’s a Christian town, and a mostly white one. Rick has left a hero-shaped hole in it.
Six years later, on a hot summer night in 2013, “history’s dogs” are “howling”. Four former schoolmates of Rick’s are, by coincidence, returning home for reasons urgent, personal, secret and not necessarily honourable. Home is the place you run from, the place that draws you back, the place that breaks you, and the place that may – or may not – make you whole again.
The first section belongs to Bill. “Bill had never actually met a person to whom he did not enjoy ranting.” In high school, Bill had been a rare liberal, whose anti-war views brought him into conflict with his fellow students, including Rick. Now he’s a mouthy, drug-fucked, self-righteous veteran of the Occupy movement with a mysterious parcel taped around his middle. In a confusion of past and present, dream and hallucination, self-justification and self-disgust, he careens drunkenly through the town he couldn’t wait to leave, waiting to hand over whatever it is he’s been paid to transport across state lines.
Second comes Stacey, who is on her way to meet the woman she “feared and hated her entire adult life” and deliver to someone else the letter she had to write to set herself free. The third part is devoted to Dan, who is a veteran, a decent man, but shouldering his own demons. Layers of history accumulate, perspectives shift. The fourth protagonist surprised me. Pay attention to the minor characters, because they hold the key to the clever, hyperkinetic, back-and-forth, twisting Rubik’s cube of a plot.
Ohio is a literary thriller and work of gritty realism that aims to be a novel of ideas as well. Its narrative jumps crazily about in time yet manages to cohere, and the writing contains many moments of genius. When Markley renders Rick’s father at the parade, “his face weary, good marble covered by bad clay”, for example, or describes cows on a road as moving “like a river of flesh and leather”, the reader in me thrills and the writer in me bows in admiration.
There are other times when the author, a bit like Bill, can’t resist stepping onto his soapbox, and peppers his prose with preachily earnest lines such as, “The natural world existed for her, as it did for most of the Global North, only as another theme park, a Disneyland.” As soon as he returns his attention to the action, a whoosh of energy rushes back onto the page. Ultimately, it is the characters’ actions, more than their ruminations, that reveal them.
If the characters’ collective lost youth had a name, it would be Lisa Han, a girl who left New Canaan for parts unknown long ago. Lisa was New Canaan’s high school intellectual femme fatale, “more creative, aware, and curious”, in Stacey’s estimation, “than the next seven hundred people at their school combined”. We learn that she had the habit of filling the margins of her books with “Jaunty, clever quips, occasionally filthy, always charming”. We then learn that such marginalia included the inscription “Jesus I’m wet” in Wuthering Heights. We also hear a lot about how charming she is, but the anecdotes fall a bit short of convincing. It’s like being told someone is witty, and then waiting for them to say anything that makes you smile.
Ohio, for all its manifest virtues, possesses a particular kind of American sensibility that doesn’t translate in every detail. Then again, one of its virtues is precisely how very American it is – how it conjures up in microcosm a nation in decline, in all its grubbiness and tragedy and pain. Ohio is as American as Walmart and war, as American as the unhappy violence in which its pages are soaked. Markley evokes the horror of war in unblinking, explicit, gory detail. But he also gives sharp expression to the implicit violence of homophobia, and the ambient savagery of sexual entitlement and predation in a high school environment where jocks are treated like gods. There’s even a kind of violence in the joy Stacey derives from describing her exotic adventures to her nemesis, a woman who’d failed to do more with her life than grow old in the place she was born.
One of the most brilliant and original metaphors in this dark and impressive, if imperfect, book ties together the concepts of violence and home. As a soldier, Dan was once directly shot at. His body armour saved his life while slamming hard against his chest. Dan came to view home as “a roving sensation, not a place, and for a large chunk of his life, the feel of that bullet to the chest, that was home”. CG
Simon & Schuster, 496pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "Stephen Markley, Ohio". Subscribe here.